Protecting culturally significant species

The iconic species sub-goal measures the conservation status of iconic marine species, which are the animals that have unique importance to humans as demonstrated through traditional activities, ethnic or religious practices, existence value, or locally acknowledged aesthetic value.


A high score indicates that few to none of the iconic species in a country’s EEZ have been categorized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered, threatened, vulnerable, or at risk of extinction. A low score indicates that many iconic species are at risk.

The current score indicates that iconic marine species could be better protected in many places. Substantial conservation efforts will be required in order to improve the status of many iconic species that call the ocean home.

Trends in Iconic Species are concerning. The global score has, on average, dropped nearly half of a point every year since 2012, with a decrase of 4 points from 2018 to 2020. This indicates that more species are listed as endangered each year. However, this decline can be partially attributed to improving IUCN Red List data across assessments. Since 2018, nearly 51,000 more species have been added to the IUCN Red List assessment (IUCN Red List).

For example, in the 2020 assessment, Qatar’s iconic species score dropped 8 percentage points (63 to 55). This is because 5 iconic species (Green Turtle, Whitetip Reef Shark, Blacktip Reef Shark, Gray Reef Shark, and the Great White Shark), all of which were classified as vulnerable or endangered, were newly assessed that year.

Over many OHI assessments, we have observed alarmingly low iconic species scores for Southeast Asian regions such as Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Dugongs, dolphins, and porpoises have experienced major declines in Southeast Asia over recent years, and some regions capture them for ecotourism purposes (Report of the third Southwest Asian marine mammal symposium (SEAMAM III)). These regions’ low scores can partially be attributed to cultural traditions such as “subsistence hunting” of marine species en masse, which is prominent due to laws that generally lack detail or enforcement (Marine Wildlife Protection Legislation in ASEAN, SEAMAM III). In Thailand, especially, prominent issues include deliberately hunting iconic species, overfishing by both small-scale and commercial fisheries, marine debris, pollution, and bycatch (SEAMAM III). Moving forward, OHI assessments will hopefully reflect improvements in ICO as these regions find the balance between cultural practices and the needs of the local charismatic marine species.

On the positive side, the regions surrounding the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe have generally had relatively high iconic species scores. These top regions include Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.

These regions’ high scores may be partially attributed to the fact that there are few iconic species and individuals to protect within the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic region is a relatively inhospitable aquatic ecosystem with a unique balance of brackish conditions. The sea’s salinity is too low for most Atlantic and North Sea species, and too high for many freshwater species. In general, few mammals and sharks can tolerate brackish conditions, and these are the categories of animals that are generally considered iconic. Furthermore, the polarized gradient of salinity across the Baltic Sea likely restricts species to a subset of the available aquatic habitat, such as just the southern region of the Baltic area (Jaspers et al. 2011). This environmental restriction likely results in smaller populations of iconic species in the Baltic Sea compared to populations in more expansive marine habitat outside of the Baltic region.

Indeed, the Baltic regions have relatively low numbers of iconic species, ranging from 11 to 20, whereas, other regions with similarly large populations and economies tend to have more, like Australia with 60 (Iconic species data prep)!

For a deep dive into the Baltic Sea ecosystem and human livelihoods, see the Baltic Health Index.

Learn more about this goal