What is Ocean Health? Developing a Canadian Ocean Health Index

As ocean scientists, we all use the words “ocean health” in our conversations and writings, but we rarely define it and we almost never try to measure it. The words “ocean health” have been used as a catch-all term to mean almost anything that we think is good for the ocean and/or for people. As a result, the term can mean many different things to different people. We want to create a tool that can be used when making management decisions regarding ocean health and hopefully reduce some of the vagueness of the concept.

Ocean Health Index

The Ocean Health Index developed by Halpern et al (2012) provides a single number that describes ocean health on the global scale. This number is calculated by scoring the present and future state of 10 public goals that can be provided by healthy oceans on the global scale. These goals range from conventional benefits like “Food Provision” and “Livelihoods and Economies” to non-use benefits, such as “Carbon Storage” and “Sense of place”. The non-use benefits are more difficult to measure but important to assess because they too can be eroded by failing ocean health. The index can be calculated for entire oceans, for individual countries, or on a smaller regional scale.

We are in the process of modifying the framework of the original Ocean Health Index to generate Canadian Ocean Health Index (COHI) that will A) incorporate public goals that are most relevant to Canadians and B) quantify the relative importance of each goal to Canadians.

It will be fairly easy to 'Canadianize' some of the goals of the original index. For example, the 'Sense of Place' goal is measured, in part, by the threat status of iconic species.  We can identify Canadian iconic species by consulting opinion surveys that have already been conducted.  We can also compare and supplement this information by recording which species are depicted in Canadian artwork or on Canadian stamps.  Similarly, the 'Carbon Storage' goal of the original index was based largely on the extent of coastal salt marshes and seagrass beds.  However, methane hydrates (fire ice) is a large carbon reservoir that needs to be incorporated in the carbon assets (or liabilities) of northern countries, so we will include it in the Canadian version of the OHI.

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There are also goals that are uniquely Canadian. We propose to include the newly defined goal “Aboriginal Needs”, which will measure the opportunities available for Canada’s First People to access ocean resources for subsistence, social and ceremonial purposes.  We can estimate this goal based partly on fuel prices and extent of sea ice, since both can constrain access to traditional fishing and hunting grounds.  

The index will also be truly Canadian because goals that are more important to Canadians will contribute more to the final ocean health measure. Over the next couple of months, we will devise a web-based survey to figure out what is important to Canadians.  This way, the public itself can tell us whether “Clean Waters” and "Biodiversity" are more or less important than “Tourism and Recreation” and "Coastal Protection".  Watch this space, as we discover what really matters to Canadians about their oceans.

We think COHI has the potential to be a powerful tool that will allow policy-makers to evaluate how different options may affect ocean health. The effect of policies that involve trade-off between goals can be evaluated on overall ocean health by incorporating this value-based component. We would like to hear about what you think about the project, please discuss below or email me! Particularly if you have additional ideas on how to quantify the “Aboriginal Needs” goal.