We ask a lot from the world’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. We expect renewable energy, bountiful seafood, thriving coastal communities, and gorgeous places to explore. But reaping these benefits involves tough choices in how we use and protect these ecosystems. To achieve a sustainable future in the face of climate change and other stressors, we need to proactively evaluate the collective impacts of our actions and policies on the many benefits we expect and value from the ocean and coasts. This is the essence of ecosystem-based management (EBM).
Almost a decade ago, two high-level US commissions articulated the need for EBM for the ocean, but provided no clear definition of what that meant or how to implement it. COMPASS worked with scientific leaders to synthesize the core concepts underlying EBM, provide a concise definition, and connect this information to regional and federal decision makers. The definition from the resulting scientific consensus statement has been adopted in multiple policy contexts, including the U.S. National Ocean Policy.
The consensus statement and related efforts helped transform the dialogue around the need for more comprehensive management that focuses on diagnosing the state of the ocean as a whole, rather than one piece at a time. However, despite widespread agreement on the need to ultimately manage for overall ecosystem health, we lacked a means to measure it. In this talk, I will highlight a new scientific tool – the Ocean Health Index – that allows us to shift from health as a powerful metaphor to an empirical measure to assess progress. The Ocean Health Index tracks progress toward 10 discrete policy goals, ranging from seafood provision to livelihoods to biodiversity. It is the first tool to allow us to directly compare and combine all dimensions of ecosystem health and can be applied across a range of contexts from individual bays to the entire globe.
The evolution of the science of EBM from the consensus statement to the Ocean Health Index will be presented as a case study in mobilizing science through (1) synthesis that integrates individual aspects of science into a cohesive whole, (2) interdisciplinary collaborations that tackle big, policy-relevant questions, and (3) engagement of the scientific community at critical windows of opportunity to inform, frame, and catalyze the policy dialogue.