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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

boy in ocean with starfish

This year, the Ocean Health Index turns ten. It all began as a way to measure ocean health holistically, a framework for combining multiple indicators and repeating and comparing assessments over time, like a “fit bit” for oceans. And while that is still what it is, more insights have come out of it than anyone could have originally expected.

With June declared a month for oceans – each year the U.S. president proclaims it National Ocean Month, and the United Nations has assigned June 8th as World Oceans Day – it seemed like a good time to reflect on the decade of the Ocean Health Index (OHI) and the nuggets from those years that we can carry forward into the next decade of ocean science and conservation. And we don’t think you need to know much about OHI to take something away from it.

NCEAS and partners have conducted a global assessment annually for each of OHI’s ten years, and separate teams all over the world have used the OHI framework to conduct nearly 30 assessments at a regional, country, or smaller scale. Many of the following takeaways and lessons learned could apply to ecosystem assessments broadly, and some have implications for science and conservation generally.

  1. Ocean health is not easy to define

What does ocean health really mean? Exactly. It turns out, everyone’s got their own way of defining it.

For OHI, a key piece of the definition is the inclusion of people. When looking around to what would make OHI most useful for decision-making, the original OHI team decided including human livelihoods and well-being in the framework would be essential. Most policy documents defined a healthy ocean as one where both nature and people are thriving, and the concept of coupled human-natural systems was saturating the scientific literature on ecosystem-based management.

The predominant counter definition is the idea of pristine oceans. While a respectable vision, it implies a future of oceans untouched and unneeded by people.

How one defines the health of any ecosystem matters particularly when it comes to determining targets or reference points for an assessment. Are you shooting for an aspirational future world or are your harkening back to world that once was?

What gets even trickier is public perception of ocean health doesn’t always match what the science says. Media coverage, personal experience, and hearsay influence what people believe about how healthy their oceans are, and the OHI scores have not always matched with these expectations, creating cognitive dissonance. The OHI looks at the whole picture, while people are often focused on what they see or care about – the opportunity therein is for efforts like OHI to help people see how what they care about fits into the bigger picture.

  1. Starting with goals, rather than data, opens up potential

OHI is a conceptual framework, a blueprint for measuring ocean health. It starts with a set of goals for each component, and then comes the adventure of finding the right data to assess progress toward those goals.

In contrast, many indicators have sprung from the data in hand. The downside of this data-first approach is that it limits the scope and potential usefulness of the indicator.

Starting with goals creates clarity around what it is you need to measure, thereby allowing an assessment team to select the most appropriate data. Sometimes, as with OHI, this leads to the discovery that the right data don’t exist. But if you’re keeping your glass half full, that data gap reveals what data are critical for understanding ocean health, which can help focus priorities.

Moreover, a conceptual framework gives everyone a voice in what is important to measure. Everyone can bring their favorite indicator to the table. Starting with a framework also enables flexibility for different scales, contexts, and needs – for example, the OHI framework has been used in geographies ranging from the shores of Hawaii to the entire Pacific region.

  1. Let’s embrace the long game

It took the original OHI team three years to develop the framework and conduct the first assessment. Each year since has been a constant process of learning what could be done better and iterating.

Assessments like OHI take lots of time – conducting each annual global assessment takes at least half a year – and maintaining indicators over the long run requires foresight. Indicators can go stale with old data or science, and any notion of a new indicator should be weighed against the resources available to keep it alive.

Commitment to the long game – by both the research and funding communities – is essential for monitoring the health of any ecosystem with the end goal of achieving sustainability targets. Without a well-maintained record of how we’re doing, we’ll never get to where we want to go.

  1. Sometimes the process yields more value than you think it will

In a 2017 paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution, NCEAS researchers detailed a revelation they had through their experience working on the global OHI assessment: working openly and collaboratively can lead to better science.

Seeding a new way of working became an unexpected ripple effect of OHI. As the team prepared to conduct the second global assessment in 2013, they realized they had not set themselves up well enough for reproducibility. While everyone had prepared their spreadsheets meticulously, they had all done it a different way. And saved email threads and memory proved inefficient at recordkeeping.

This crisis forced their adoption of data science principles, open science tools such as GitHub, and more streamlined communication and documentation methods. This transformation has revolutionized how the team functions, and promoting the importance of open science practices has become part and parcel to the mission of OHI.

  1. Open data is imperative for healthy oceans

The OHI relies on existing and accessible data from both academia and government agencies. In return, all data and code that go into the OHI scores are open and accessible for others to use.

Open data is absolutely essential for tracking the health of our oceans, and it goes hand in hand with that commitment to the long game. Paywalls and poorly documented data can leave holes or questions in the records that can make results more uncertain or can hide opportunities for progress.

Data sharing and data repositories facilitate the synthesis that goes into ecosystem assessments and can help quicken the pace of knowledge generation, which is especially helpful as the urgency to make data-informed decisions to address threats to ocean health only grows.

  1. Reproducibility invites opportunities for improvement

The credibility of an indicator rests on the transparency and reproducibility of its methods, which is why OHI makes all of its data and code open. Opening the black box with clearly recorded decisions for the data and analyses not only streamlines the annual assessment – it’s much easier to re-run than it is to reinvent! – but also invites opportunities for improvement.  

With the data and code out in the open, others can peek under the hood and scrutinize it, which is a good thing if you’re trying to do the best science possible. Ultimately, this scrutiny can lead to better results.

A great example from OHI is the fisheries goal. Feedback from other scientists early on pointed out some shortcomings of the original fisheries model. This gave the OHI team the opportunity to listen, learn, and iterate, resulting in a more advanced model that yields more accurate results.

  1. Data science is an essential skill for future ocean scientists

The OHI team’s revelation of the importance of data and open science skills shined light on the need for these skills among the future ocean science workforce. Data science is a quickly growing industry, one with many applications, including making data-informed decisions to improve ocean health.

Seeing a need for more ocean scientists with data science chops, NCEAS developed the OHI Fellows program, which trains early career researchers to conduct the assessment using open science principles and in a team environment – training that is vastly different than what most researchers get in school.

Now, every annual global assessment is done by a small team of OHI Fellows. The program has launched careers, sending new scientists out into the world with a skillset and mindset that make them well prepared to tackle data-intensive challenges.

  1. Build partnerships, especially locally and early on

Local stories, perspectives, and data create an index that is better-informed, more tangible, and more useful to local communities, particularly when working at a regional scale. Building local partnerships to ensure the inclusion of local context early on in the process enhances the credibility and applicability of any ecosystem assessment.

For example, partnership with First Nations was a priority for the British Columbia assessment. Indigenous knowledge is not traditionally stored in data repositories, and so without the inclusion of First Nations in the process, important data would have been missing from the assessment and the picture of ocean health would have been incomplete.

Local partnerships also help ensure the right people are around the table, the assessment framework fits the place, and there is alignment with existing efforts or initiatives, lessons explored more closely in this earlier story about the assessments conducted for the U.S. Northeast, Ecuador’s Gulf of Guayaquil, and Hawaii.

  1. Take the time to build teams and trust

It takes a good team make a good indicator. Too often, teamwork and trust become things that, in retrospect, could have been done differently, having been overlooked in the rush to crunch the numbers and get the results.

Team building, collaboration, and good communication from start to finish are worth the time and budget to do right. They lead to better results.

  1. An imperfect tool is better than no tool

“We can’t manage what we don’t measure” has become a well-worn saying over the years of conducting OHI assessments. And we can’t measure without a tool.

The Ocean Health Index is not perfect. There might never be all the right data, and models can always be improved. But an imperfect tool is better than no tool, particularly when facing the urgency of saving oceans in a changing climate.

Imperfection is another reason why the open science tenets of transparency and documentation are critical for making progress toward healthy oceans. Accentuating the gaps and shortcomings illuminates pathways to better data and models. And, together, we can get closer to perfection.

Further reading: NCEAS executive director Ben Halpern, who also leads the Ocean Health Index, published this paper in One Earth last year reflecting on lessons learned from the last decade.

Special thanks to Julie Lowndes, Courtney Scarborough, and Gage Clawson for their help in crafting this piece.

Category: Feature

Tags: Ocean Health Index, Ecosystem Services, Data Science, Conservation & Management