Ocean Health: Greg Stone

Greg Stone recently developed the Ocean Health Index, an all-encompassing metric that scores ocean health from 0-100 in ten key areas: food provision, carbon storage, tourism & recreation, biodiversity, artisanal fishing opportunities, coastal protection, sense of place, natural products, coastal livelihoods & economies, and clean waters. Individual countries’ scores ranged from 36 to 83, and the aggregate global score was 60.

He was also heavily involved in the Phoenix Island Protected Area (PIPA) project, an effort that saw the small island nation of Kiribati (pronounced “KEE-ra-bas”) set aside an area the size of California for a marine park.

G.Stone

Could you describe the Ocean Health Index’ objective?

The Ocean Health Index is the first composite, scientific measurement of ocean health ever. It consolidates almost 200 different datasets throughout the world and provides a measure of ocean health that integrates humans in the measurement, which is what’s new about it. We’re not measuring a pristine ocean of 1,000 years ago; instead, we’re measuring the human-ocean coupled system. This is something that society is beginning to recognize as a need.

The environmental community is quite far behind other industries as far as metrics go. Think about all the things finance people utilize. They know all the currency exchanges, stock fluctuations, bond markets, political regimes, and they consolidate all this information to make decisions.

The environmental community has not done that. We’ve still basically got people walking around with notebooks and pencils. As we continue to dominate the earth’s system we need to figure out what I call the “boundaries of sustainability,” meaning what playing field we have to stay on in order to sustainably use the earth’s resources going forward.

You may have heard of Buckminster Fuller’s famous phrase “spaceship earth,” where we are basically on a spaceship with no chance of resupply or repair. Another thing he said is that it didn’t come with a manual. But now we’re coming up with one. We still need other metrics of sustainability for things like fresh water and agricultural development. Those things and the Ocean Health Index should be seen as chapters in this operating manual.

How would you characterize the international community’s response so far?

I happened to have been in an international meeting in the Cook Islands when [the index] was released – there were about 30 countries represented there, so I got a lot of reactions. The initial reactions were negative, because countries were wondering first what the thing was, and second why their score was so low. Lots of countries were low. New Zealand for example was pretty high but they wanted to be higher – their delegation commented to me “Why are we 13th from the top? We should be number one or two.”

Then the countries began thinking about it. The fact that we’d published it in Nature, so we had solid scientific backing, meant that they couldn’t just discard it. They came back to us and asked “How can we improve our score?” For example with Columbia, we’ve sent some teams down, and they have worked with the various industries so that they can understand the index and understand how their decisions can improve their score. China would like to adopt it as a way to move forward on their ocean management system. Brazil has also engaged with it, and there are many others. It’s a process, but it’s going quite well. It’s a new beast on the field. Countries are kind of eye-balling it and wondering how to use it and how to improve.

Are there any aspects of the index that you’re looking to update or change?

There’s been some debate in Nature through their discussion format mostly about the food provision indicator and fisheries, which they think are a little harsh. We’re taking those discussions into consideration and are going to update that in the future.

One of the prerequisites for this model was to use existing datasets. We’ve seen situations where you come up with a new index or tool and it requires you to go out and gather data, and suddenly it just gets bogged down because the costs of gathering data are so high. We knew we had some shortcomings, but we did the best with the information we had. This is a tool, it’s a model, and like anything in science we’ll continue improving it.

Think about it like weather forecasting. We’re in the early days of weather forecasting. We know some things and don’t know others. The more information we gather and the more thought we put into it the better we got at predicting weather. And today we’re pretty good at it. The Ocean Health Index is where weather was 100 years ago.

The global score for tourism is a 10, which stands out among all categories as particularly low. What is so destructive about our tourist activities?

That’s a category we’re going to make more intuitive. The main indicator in this rating is based on the amount of sustainable tourism along the coast. The reason it’s so low is that there’s a lot of room for improvement. It looks like it’s bad tourism, but it actually means there’s room for more tourism. It means the countries can bring more people to the coast, and engage them in tourist activities.

In Australia and New Zealand, two countries that scored relatively low, there’s lots of room to create more sustainable tourist activity along the coast, getting more people out there and developing more revenue along the coast. It’s a little counter intuitive, but that’s why that one looks low.

A lot of the small island states countries ended up with high tourism scores. They have a lot of people arriving to enjoy the ocean. They’re benefiting from a clean and healthy ocean by people’s enthusiasm and arrivals for that. This gets back to our original premise, which is we’re including humans in the model. You can’t have a high score unless humans are benefiting from a sustainable ocean.

It’s funny – these countries love their tourism ratings. I remember seeing Barbados and a lot of these small countries in the Caribbean or the Pacific use the index as an advertising tool. They started saying “come to Barbados – we have a very high ocean health index and tourism score!”

That’s a fantastic example of countries getting involved in the Index on their own. Do you have any plans to involve countries that aren’t as receptive to the metric?

We have a very proactive program that centers around the fact that the index is scalable – we can really focus it down on a bay, or a small harbor. You can focus on a region, so we’re releasing some regional scores now. We’re releasing a more in-depth study, for example, in Brazil to show how using more intensive data can work. The global scores were pretty coarse, because that’s what the datasets were like, but when you get into a country or a region you can pick up data that’s not in these global datasets. So we’re giving a regional score for the west and east coasts of the US, for Fiji and Brazil over the next twelve months.

There’s also a continuing roll-out plan for additional products and tools. For example, we’re also developing something called Atul, a computer program that can be given to a country or a ministry and used to generate their own index to manage their own ocean area.

We’re also releasing a score for the high seas and an update on the global score in September. We really tried to make this more than just a one-off science paper and more of an ongoing enterprise.

How does the Ocean Health Index fit into the UN’s vision of what the high seas should be?

The high seas are an interesting one because 70% of our planet is ocean, and 60% of that ocean is high seas. It’s an area that doesn’t have a very advanced policy and legal system. But everyone is paying attention to it now. The Ocean Health Index on the high seas will be a score of how the global community is doing and it can be used to manage this vast resource and we can begin to see what the trends are and how to improve those trends as we go forward.

Is it a concern that there’s not a central administration to go to with a score?

You can go to the UN, which does have nominal influence over the high seas. You can also go to regional tuna commissions that manage various parts of the oceans. There’s something called the international seabed authority which governs and regulates deep sea mining in the high seas. There are entities you can roll this out to, and say “Your activities are influencing it this way, or your decision can influence it that way.” So you’re right – it’s a different animal. It’s nowhere near as tight as the legal systems that govern national waters, but there are things you can go to, and we’re optimistic they will be receptive to the idea.

Switching gears, can you talk about the Kiribati PIPA conservation effort?

PIPA was declared in 2006, at which time it was the largest conservation effort area-wise. The way these marine parks work is that first countries declare them, which is an aspirational moment where they say “this is what we want to do.” And then they implement it over the next number of years. So it took between then and now to pass the legislation and to set up the Phoenix Island Protected Area Trust, which is an independent entity in place to steward an endowment and release funds to the country to help it manage this thing. There’s a lot of pieces that go into it.

You have a close relationship with the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. Do you think your success with PIPA was largely due to that relationship, or is it something repeatable in other countries?

The creation of PIPA was a combination of a lot of things that came together at the right time. I was privileged to lead the early scientific expeditions to these islands and document what’s there, then bring that to the government. My team provided technical backup, and the President provided exceptional political leadership to pull this off within Kiribati.

Then the other countries in the Pacific started looking at it and saying, “Hey this is pretty cool,” and they all started doing it. The Cook islands followed, Caledonia, Togo started talking about it. So it is repeatable, it is a model that’s starting to be repeated. You can also argue that it influenced things like the Chago declaration, the marine park that supplanted PIPA as the largest in the world, and others.

It has been a domino effect, starting with PIPA. There had been a big gap time-wise. The Australians declared the Great Barrier Reef a marine park back in the ‘70s and then there was a long dry period when nothing happened at a large scale, and then PIPA started it back in ‘06. George Bush made a bunch of declarations before he left office, and then there’s been a series of declarations throughout the Pacific that have been pretty cool to watch.

Can you describe your experience exploring the Phoenix Islands?

It changed my life. It’s a fantastic ocean environment, and you really feel like you’re in the heart of the ocean. When I first went there I just wanted to explore an unexplored archipelago in the middle of the ocean, but it gave me an opportunity to see what the ocean should be like. It was like going back in time. I’d never seen a reef with so many sharks, or so many fish. I suddenly realized how reefs were supposed to be. All the reefs I’d previously dove on had been deprived of normal populations, but the Phoenix Islands had [them]. It was the chance of a lifetime that I’ll always be thankful for.

Have you encountered any resistance to these conservation efforts, either domestically or internationally?

They day after the Kiribati government declared this area they got a communication from the Japanese government saying, “What are you doing, this is an ocean area that we don’t want restrictions on.” It was fascinating for me to hear that; I remember at the time saying to myself, “Well this is how the world works. No one congratulates them; instead they get a letter questioning the action.”

So I sent the word around to other organizations and people saying, “If you think this is a good thing, you should send them a letter to let them know. Now is the time.” There were some congratulatory letters that came in after that, and since then the country and President Tong have been applauded and given a lot of awards, and it’s really gone well.

It’s really important in the international arena for countries and entities, whether they’re NGOs or countries, or universities, to express their opinions, and congratulatory letters are a good way to let countries know they’ve done something well. The awards system we have throughout the world where organizations issue awards to individuals or countries is good. President Tong has received several awards for his participation in [PIPA]. That’s great because it encourages countries and keeps their morales up, especially these smaller countries that don’t have a lot of resources.

How does this success in Kirbati fit into the global conservation effort?

It’s helped countries think big. It’s helped energize the countries with fewer resources, these smaller countries that have been traditionally called SIDS, an acronym for Small Island Developing States. We’re trying to change the nomenclature; they should be called “Giant Ocean States,” because thats what they are. Kiribati for example covers 1.3 million square miles, which is five times the size of Texas. They have small land areas but enormous ocean areas.

Those ocean areas are essential for life on earth. They’re not only important for the local population, but because we’re such a globalized planet, you and I benefit from the actions that a country like that takes. I think it’s energized the world and especially these smaller nations who think “Hey we can contribute to the globe and this is what we’re going to do.”


GREG STONE works as a Senior Vice-President and Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International. As an oceanographer, he has logged over 7000 dives in all oceans. He has led expeditions for National Geographic to Antarctica, Thailand, and many Pacific Islands, and has authored hundreds of publications, including in Nature, National Geographic Magazine and Science.

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Greg Stone