Six months ago, NCEAS’ executive director Ben Halpern, along with a team of fellow marine scientists, published a provocative paper that called for the inclusion of oceans in a framework that is shaping global environmental discussion and policy: Planetary Boundaries. The framework sets limits to the abilities of major earth systems to support human life, and its exclusion of oceans, which cover over two-thirds of the planet, was a major oversight to which scientists had yet called attention.
For this important contribution to ocean science and for his many others – such as his leadership of the Ocean Health Index – Halpern was recently awarded the 2018 Ocean Science Award from Boat International, a global media company focused on the yachting industry and community.
We asked Halpern to catch us up on his ocean planetary boundaries work and what this award means for ocean health.
What kinds of responses to your paper Planetary Boundaries for a Blue Planet have you received since its publication?
BH: Mostly the kind of response that people give when a result seems so obvious that they assume it must have been known before. It’s hard to imagine NOT including the ocean – 70% of our planet – when thinking about the ecological limits to our impacts, yet no one was really doing that before we published our paper.
What follow-up research are you and your ocean planetary boundaries team doing now?
BH: The boundaries are, simply put, global limits or thresholds. The concept can be applied and explored at smaller scales or for specific issues too. So a lot of our continuing research is focused on better understanding specific limits. For example, in collaboration with others, we are exploring how global food systems contribute to human pressures on some of the planetary boundaries, such as nitrogen and phosphorous pollution inputs and freshwater use.
Why do you feel the planetary boundaries framework is useful for ocean management?
BH: In the end it’s primarily useful as a heuristic, since very little actionable management happens at the global scale. Recognizing that boundaries exist, that there are many types of boundaries, and that oceans play a key role in understanding those boundaries are all critically important ideas to keep in mind when thinking about any particular management decision.
What do you feel is valuable about Boat International’s recognition of scientific contributions to oceans?
BH: Industry and various interest groups can be some of the most powerful voices of awareness and change because they have a direct stake in the health of the resource. Boaters are on the water all the time, often diving under the water as well. So they are experiencing the health of the ocean much more directly than many others. That this organization and community acknowledges the role that science plays in understanding and assessing ocean health is really empowering.
How often do you find yourself on a boat?
BH: I’ve never owned a boat, but boats of all sizes have played a large role in my scientific career and personal life. I love being on the water and exploring the oceans of our planet.