Three Lessons for Using the Global Ocean Health Index to Assess Local Oceans

by Jenny Seifert

Fri, Apr 26, 2019

Cross-posted at NCEAS

It just made sense. That was a theme I drew from conversations with four people involved in separate efforts to use the Ocean Health Index’s global framework to zoom in on ocean health in their particular regions to support local ocean planning.

The Index was designed to be useful to ocean planning around the world, and to be useful, it must be applicable to place-based management, which is how so many decisions that affect ocean health are made after all. The four people I spoke with represent quite a range of place-based applications – from the US state of Hawaii to the entire US Northeastern seaboard, and from Ecuador’s Gulf of Guayaquil to the multi-nation Baltic Sea.

To be clear, just because it made sense didn’t mean it was easy to make the global framework fit locally. Each person was part of a team that had to acquire and then standardize lots of data from several different agencies and organizations. They also had to corral busy people with different interests and perspectives around the same table to come to consensus on what mattered most for their local oceans and coastal communities.

The payoff of these challenges is the production of an integrated approach to assessing oceans locally and from a perspective that is useful for decision making: how well oceans can provide what humans need from them. For these reasons, plus its spatial scalability, the OHI framework really scratches an itch among ocean planners, says Emily Shumchenia, a contractor for the US Northeast Regional Ocean Council and collaborator on OHI Northeast, which is still under development.

“There’s this recognition that, with all of the rapid changes in the way ocean space is being used and going to be used in the near future, there should be some standardized way to monitor and track the changes that have occurred and are occurring,” she said. “Providing that framework as a starting point is so much easier than starting from scratch.”

While there is no prescription for how to tailor the global framework for local uses, three interrelated things seem to stand out: include the right people from the start, fit the framework to the place, and align with existing regional efforts. Here I expand upon those lessons in support of regions around the world that are considering measuring the health of their oceans through OHI.

Include the Right People Early As a lens for examining ocean health in a holistic way, the Index is designed to incorporate multiple perspectives. Through her involvement in the Northeast assessment, Shumchenia recognized the importance of involving a broad array of stakeholders as early in the process as possible, in part to build support for the assessment.

“Because, as you move along and start looking at results, lots of different folks are going to look for their perspective in those results, and if their perspective is not there, they will be disappointed,” she said.

Involving the right people early on is also a way to bring a local OHI assessment in sync with other indicator efforts that may be already underway in a region.

For example, in the Baltic region there are several ongoing indicator efforts focused on more singular interests, such as fisheries or water quality. This made it important for Thorsten Blenckner from the Stockholm Resilience Center to ensure representatives from these efforts were included in designing the Baltic Health Index, which he is leading.

“It was quite important to get the different agencies on board to make sure there is no competition,” said Blenckner.

Fit the Framework to The Place The global framework is certainly not one-size-fits-all, but intended to be a guide for organizing and integrating local data and priorities so that it fits into local contexts. For example, to harmonize the Baltic assessment with other regional indicator efforts, Blenckner is using the existing data from those efforts and mirroring their targets, such as those for nutrient levels to achieve clean water.

Much of the data that went into Ecuador’s Gulf of Guayaquil assessment, which was completed in 2015, was from Ecuadorian sources, such as the Ministry of Tourism and National Fisheries Institute.

“The more local information you are able to incorporate, the more confident you can be that the final result is representing the local status and condition of the local ecosystem,” said Lelys Bravo, who was a lead data analyst for the Gulf of Guayaquil assessment and is an incoming professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne.

Even before regional teams select their data comes the process of setting regional priorities. After all, one of the unique aspects of OHI is, by design, it requires assessment teams to identify what is important to measure first, before figuring out how to measure it.

The global framework provides a building-block set of goals that represent significant benefits that people get from oceans. Tailoring the goals to fit local priorities can mean anything from tweaking how a goal is measured to creating whole new goals or removing ones that aren’t relevant.

Both the Gulf of Guayaquil and Hawaii teams modified the Tourism and Recreation goal to fit their local contexts. With Ecuador’s rise in domestic and international tourism, Bravo and her team had to adjust the way they measured the status of this goal to properly measure the trend.

In Hawaii, the project team ended up creating a whole separate goal called Sustainable Tourism to address the triangular need for a thriving industry that supports good jobs and revenue, but also stays within the environment’s carrying capacity and secures acceptance among residents, especially given the downhill trend in their attitudes toward tourists.

“We wanted it to meet the philosophies of people from Hawaii,” said Eva Schemmel, a scientist a Conservation International who led the Hawaii assessment, which was completed in 2018.

Schemmel explained, for them, it was a process of examining each global goal and asking whether it is relevant to Hawaii. And rather than alter the actual structure of the framework, their local philosophies shaped what each goal meant to them and how they measured it.

“You get more buy-in and ownership when you tailor the index to the region, using local pressures, using local goal philosophies, local data. This sense of ownership will help with repeated assessments in the future,” said Schemmel.

Align with On-the-Ground Efforts Another avenue for buy-in is to align regional OHI assessments with what is happening on the ground. Including active players and tailoring the assessment with local data, philosophies, and goals are certainly part of this alignment, but also important is plugging the framework into places where there is already momentum for ocean planning.

Around the time the Hawaii assessment was getting underway, the state governor announced the launch of the Aloha+ Challenge, an archipelago-wide initiative to meet a set of sustainability goals by 2030, including the “effective management” of 30 percent of its near-shore waters by the deadline. The Hawaii Index is now part of the governor’s dashboard for measuring progress toward these commitments.

Once the Baltic Health Assessment is completed, Blenckner hopes it will become a “big player” in the region’s efforts to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14.2, which addresses the sustainable management and protection of marine and coastal ecosystems. All Baltic nations have signed onto it.

For Bravo, ensuring their data would be accessible and usable to others in the Guayaquil region was part of her contribution, as a data analyst, to aligning the assessment to on-the-ground efforts. Her collaborators are working to integrate it into the process for designing local fisheries regulations.

Shumchenia sees the forthcoming Northeast regional assessment as a bolster to local decision-making. In combination with other regional data and assessments, she thinks it can provide a way for regional ocean planners to track trends within this data-rich region over time, as well as support existing hypotheses or conclusions.

“There’s a higher chance of buy-in because many of the datasets in OHI will be familiar and will have been used all along in ocean planning,” said Shumchenia. “People want to see those datasets being used towards something and used in an integrated way. OHI provides the opportunity to do that.”