It should come as no big surprise to anyone that in the last century, man has placed a tremendous burden on the ocean. We have carelessly overfished it, polluted it, dumped carbon dioxide into it, and heated it up. Though it covers more than 70 percent of the planet, we have long treated the ocean like a giant dumping ground, fooling ourselves into thinking it has an infinite ability to absorb toxic runoff, billions of pieces of plastic, and 24 million tons of carbon dioxide per year—and still somehow miraculously heal itself all the while providing us with valuable resources, ranging from food to medicines.

Visible signs of the abuse are evident whether one is standing on the beach at Margate or enjoying the waterways in and around Philadelphia that lead to it. The plastic container one sees floating in the Schuylkill River is most likely on its way to the ocean along with tons of other plastic, as well as pesticide and fertilizer runoff, sewage waste, and garbage blown from nearby landfills. Keep that in mind the next time you order a fish “caught locally” off the menu of your favorite restaurant.

Dr. Ben Horton, associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Earth and Environmental Science and director of Penn’s Sea Level Research Laboratory, is part of a team of a dozen scientists that has recently published a landmark paper documenting—and verifying—rising sea levels along the coasts of the United States.

Horton says the reasons Philadelphians have to be concerned about what’s happening to the planet’s ocean is easy, because that’s where so many choose to spend their downtime—on nearby beaches. In addition to this common pastime, the economy of the Philadelphia region is tied to the ocean through our busy port, our love of seafood, and tourism at the New Jersey Shore.

To try to stem the tide of all the ocean abuse, some of the smartest minds in the science, conservation, and business worlds have joined forces to come up with a way to encourage cleaning up some of the worst of the ocean’s problems. The solution takes the form of a study of each of the 171 “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs) that surround countries with ocean coastlines. Each country was analyzed and then given a grade—between 1 and 100—that rates how it is doing when it comes to the business of protecting its shorefront. By assigning a numerical grade, the study’s goal is to incentivize countries—and businesses—to clean up current problems and maintain high standards moving forward by investing in ocean protection.

Announced in August, the initial Ocean Health Index is the creation of Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, New England Aquarium, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Starting in 2008, more than 60 scientists traveled the globe evaluating ecological, social, economic, and political factors for every coastal country, and then added up the results.

With 100 being the best possible score, the highest tally on the list was given to the isolated Jarvis Island in the South Pacific, with a total of 86; the lowest went to the African nation of Sierra Leone, which scored 36. It wasn’t just remote islands that scored well. Germany ranked fourth with a score of 73, suggesting its marine region is well protected. The US scored 63, tying it for 26th on the list, in between Pitcairn and Ukraine. While it scored well in coastal protection, it didn’t do so well in food supply, clean water, and tourism. The average score was 60, or as Dr. Greg Stone, Conservation International’s executive vice president and chief scientist for oceans, put it, a “D.” The group that dreamed up the Index hopes it will become the lead indicator used by policymakers and conservationists around the world as they try to assess what’s wrong with their respective seascapes, and how to fix them.

Dr. Ben Halpern, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, oversaw the project and wrote the peer-reviewed paper, introducing it in the journal Nature. He says the response to the research has already been “remarkably positive and excited. You can’t manage something like ocean health without actually having a tool to measure it. It’s not a panacea that’s going to solve all problems,” he says, “but it will definitely help in the process of trying to fix things.”

While admitting he was “surprised” by the Index’s average score of 60, Halpern said the reaction from some corners of the world has been swift: Marine biologists with the Colombian government (ranked 94th), for instance, immediately invited a team from Conservation International to advise them on how the country can improve its score.

Marine biologist Dr. Sebastian Troëng, vice president of marine conservation at Conservation International, lives and works along the Atlantic coastline and is extremely concerned about the health of local waterways. He appreciates the Index for a straightforward reason: It encourages healthy competition.

“There is nothing like good old-fashioned competition between neighboring countries to encourage actions to improve ocean health. I have already spoken to top government officials in five countries who are interested in the Ocean Health Index’s approach and results, so there is definitely appetite for the Index and its scores.”

The ratings are not only relevant to coastal dwellers; anyone who eats fish, escapes to the beach, or worries about the planet’s weather patterns must be concerned about the ocean’s health.

Dr. Horton agrees that grading is important, “especially if it is done on an annual basis, so we can track if a country is improving. I think quantitative measures are very useful to see where the US stands in relation to other nations.”

From a scientist’s perspective, he says, it’s even more important since “we live on a blue planet. More than 70 percent of the planet’s surface is covered by our oceans, and it is the principal component of earth’s hydrosphere. Our ocean is integral to all life, forms part of the carbon cycle, and controls climate and weather patterns.”

Dr. Stone agrees that now is the perfect time to be releasing this seemingly straightforward rating mechanism. “I’ve never in my life seen a moment as open, with so much opportunity, as this for the oceans. Even within the last several months the tempo has picked up, with James Cameron going to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and new marine-protected areas being announced with regularity.” He is hopeful that the Index will prove to be a missing link between talk and action, though he admits measuring direct change as a result from it will not be easy.

“One thing to be clear on: We are not trying to compare the health of the ocean today to a time when it was pristine, thousands of years ago. That’s history. We are in an era where humans dominate the ocean, and we are the first to admit we are measuring a troubled system.”

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