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On the Environment

Wednesday, April 13, 2011
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Q & A with Steve Katona, managing director of the Ocean Health Index

By Susanne Stahl

Steve Katona, managing director of the Ocean Health Index for Conservation International, recently spoke at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies about his work on the OHI, a project founded by CI, the National Geographic Society, and the New England Aquarium. The OHI, scheduled for release in early 2012, will establish a standard for measuring ocean health and help policymakers gauge the success of efforts to improve ocean governance and health.

YCELP: When you talk about ocean health, what are you looking at?

Steve Katona: The way we define it, a healthy ocean has the ecological function and structure necessary to provide things that people value, and to provide them sustainably – now and in the future.

So it is a human-oriented view of the ocean, but the things that people want are not just extractive things like fish or other marine products. People also value the ability of the ocean to sustain cultures and traditions and to maintain subsistence … for people to fish and eat that fish for their protein. They also value, of course, tourism and recreation and the livelihoods that the ocean can produce and many other things. And, above all, they do value diversity in a broad sense, not just the species, but their interactions that produce the ecological structure and function

Underlying everything is clean water. There are buried in this loads of natural and aesthetic and existence values in addition to the things that we take from the ocean.

YCELP: As you’ve been working on the index, is there any particular element of ocean health that you’ve found most troubling?

Steve Katona: Let me start with the things that are most encouraging. Most encouraging are some very good trends and results, for example, for the protection of marine mammals. Because of protective legislation in many countries and internationally, the big whales have really done pretty well, and they’re coming along nicely as are other marine mammals of various kinds – seals, manatees in different places. Small cetaceans are having more difficulties, so there’s plenty of work to be done there – but it’s a success story for the big whales.

I think there are also some success stories in fisheries where management is applied and effective and enforced and reasonable. You can see changes fairly quickly over a decade or perhaps more. So there is hope that by really showing the political will and public will, things can get done.

There are some other things that are very slow moving, particularly climate-related things and ocean acidification. Those are going to move very slowly, and they are – for some time to come – because there’s so much carbon dioxide in the system already, so they will impact various aspects of ocean health for a long time to come. How bad those conditions become is a matter of how much we’re able to do now and how quickly we’re able to act, but even if we did everything that we could do immediately, there still will be warming and acidification coming. So those are a little discouraging, but, on the other hand, they’ll get a heck of a lot worse if we don’t take action now.

YCELP: What are a few of the things you wish people understood about how their day-to-day activities affect ocean health?

Steve Katona: We all demand quite a bit of the ocean in terms of what we eat – seafood choices we make, for sure – but there are other things, things that we might vote for, which look like they might be good – funding for a new pier, subsidy for some new fishing boats, subsidy for fishermen’s fuel, things like that. All of these kinds of things may have beneficial local consequences, but may have very detrimental broader consequences because they increase fishing pressure at a time when fishing pressure is already too heavy. Most people don’t always see that relationship.

So trying to eliminate or at least minimize what I think are harmful subsidies – that is harmful to fish stocks – that’s one thing to think about. Energy use (is another). We usually don’t think of energy use in terms of the ocean, but we should. Every watt that we use in our house, every drop of gasoline that we use in our car implies carbon dioxide production somewhere, unless we’re getting your energy from a sustainable or renewable source or nuclear, which has its own set of problems. All that comes home to roost in rising global temperature, rising sea temperatures, rising sea level and ocean acidification. So energy use is absolutely important in this and people need to be aware of that and to reduce their energy use both for environmental reasons and, more immediately, for personal financial reasons. Everything you save, you save in money, too.

YCELP: You’ve mentioned that you were affected by Rachel Carson’s books growing up, have there been any ocean-related books you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

Steve Katona: Charles Clover’s End of the Line is a wonderful book about fisheries and the pressure on fisheries; I highly recommend it– it’s discouraging, but it’s certainly enlightening. That’s one that’s stuck with me. Another one is Joe Romm’s Hell and High Water. It’s a terrific book, and his blog Climate Progress is well worth viewing for anybody who is interested in the energy side of this equation.

On a more hopeful note, Defying Ocean's End: An Agenda For Action by Linda Glover, Sylvia Earle, and Graeme Kelleher contains some ambitious plans for restoring ocean health. I highly recommend it.

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