The ocean plays a critical role in supporting human well-being, from providing food, livelihoods and recreational opportunities to regulating the global climate. Sustainable management aimed at maintaining the flow of a broad range of benefits from the ocean requires a comprehensive and quantitative method to measure and monitor the health of coupled human–ocean systems. We created an index comprising ten diverse public goals for a healthy coupled human–ocean system and calculated the index for every coastal country. Globally, the overall index score was 60 out of 100 (range 36–86), with developed countries generally performing better than developing countries, but with notable exceptions. Only 5% of countries scored higher than 70, whereas 32% scored lower than 50. The index provides a powerful tool to raise public awareness, direct resource management, improve policy and prioritize scientific research.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    et al. A global map of human impact on marine ecosystems. Science 319, 948–952 (2008)

  2. 2.

    et al. Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293, 629–637 (2001)

  3. 3.

    et al. Global trajectories of the long-term decline of coral reef ecosystems. Science 301, 955–958 (2003)

  4. 4.

    Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) (2005)

  5. 5.

    , & Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond solitude and fragility. Breakthrough J. No. 2. 29–37 (2011)

  6. 6.

    , , & Domesticated nature: shaping landscapes and ecosystems for human welfare. Science 316, 1866–1869 (2007)

  7. 7.

    et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475 (2009)

  8. 8.

    et al. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol. Soc. 14, 32 (2009)

  9. 9.

    , (2012)

  10. 10.

    Executive Order 13547: Stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the great lakes. (2010)

  11. 11.

    , eds. Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans (Island, 2009)

  12. 12.

    , & Linking ecosystem health indicators and collaborative management: a systematic framework to evaluate ecological and social outcomes. Ecol. Soc. 12, 6 (2007)

  13. 13.

    et al. Ecosystem health: the concept, the ISEH, and the important tasks ahead. Ecosyst. Health 5, 82–90 (1999)

  14. 14.

    , & A proposed framework for developing indicators of ecosystem health. Hydrobiologia 263, 1–44 (1993)

  15. 15.

    & Indicators of ecosystem recovery. Environ. Manage. 14, 527–545 (1990)

  16. 16.

    , & Assessing ecosystem health. Trends Ecol. Evol. 13, 397–402 (1998)

  17. 17.

    in Ecosystem health: New Goals for Environmental Management 239 (Island, 1992)

  18. 18.

    Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis Report (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005)

  19. 19.

    et al. The State of the Nation's Ecosystems: Measuring the Land, Waters, and Living Resources of the United States (Island, 2008)

  20. 20.

    , , & Selecting indicator portfolios for marine species and food webs: a Puget Sound case study. PLoS ONE 6, e25248 (2011)

  21. 21.

    & A framework for selecting a suite of indicators for fisheries management. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 62, 516–527 (2005)

  22. 22.

    & A conceptual framework for selecting environmental indicator sets. Ecol. Indic. 8, 14–25 (2008)

  23. 23.

    The State of the Nation's Ecosystems 2008: Measuring the Lands, Waters and Living Resources of the United States (Island, 2008)

  24. 24.

    et al. Global biodiversity: indicators of recent declines. Science 328, 1164–1168 (2011)

  25. 25.

    et al. Aggregate performance in managing marine ecosystems of 53 maritime countries. Mar. Policy 34, 468–476 (2010)

  26. 26.

    United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

  27. 27.

    , & Modeling Methods for Marine Science (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011)

  28. 28.

    et al. Rebuilding global fisheries. Science 325, 578–585 (2009)

  29. 29.

    Strategic plan for biodiversity 2011–2020, including Aichi biodiversity targets, (2010)

  30. 30.

    et al. Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services. Science 314, 787–790 (2006)

  31. 31.

    . Worldwide Governance Indicators (2010)

  32. 32.

    , & in Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans (eds & ) 33 (Island, 2009)

  33. 33.

    et al. Natural Capital: Theory and Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011)

  34. 34.

    et al. Sea sick? Setting targets to assess ocean health and ecosystem services. Ecosphere 3, 1–18 (2012)

  35. 35.

    et al. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342 (2011)

  36. 36.

    Implications of Goodhart’s law for monitoring global biodiversity loss. Conserv. Lett. 4, 264–268 (2011)

  37. 37.

    et al. Mapping cumulative human impacts to California Current marine ecosystems. Conserv. Lett. 2, 138–148 (2009)

  38. 38.

    , & in Dead Water: Merging of Climate Change with Pollution, Over-Harvest, and Infestations in the World’s Fishing Grounds (United Nations Environment Programme, 2008)

  39. 39.

    et al. Theme plenary session: implementation, compliance and effectiveness. Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: Implementation, Compliance and Effectiveness (ASIL, 1997).

Download references


B. Wrigley and H. Wrigley provided the founding grant. Additional financial and in-kind support was provided by the Pacific Life Foundation, Thomas W. Haas Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the Oak Foundation, Akiko Shiraki Dynner Fund for Ocean Exploration and Conservation, Darden Restaurants Inc. Foundation, Conservation International, New England Aquarium, National Geographic, and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, which supported the Ecosystem Health Working Group as part of the Science of Ecosystem-Based Management project funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. We would like to thank L. Bergen, J. Bort, B. Bronson, C. Costello, N. Crone, A. Dickson, J. Francis, A. Ghermandi, R. Haskell, L. Kaufman, K. Law, L. Madin, P. Nuñes, D. Obura, L. Onofri, J. Packard, R. Portela, N. Rao, J. Regetz, S. Running, K. Selkoe, L. Speer, B. Spitzer, P. Stevick, H. Tallis, H. Tausig, S. Troeng and D. Zeyen for helpful discussions and logistical support during development of the index. Individual authors also acknowledge additional support from NSF, NASA, NOAA, Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions and the Jaffe Family Foundation. K.K., D.P., U.R.S. and D.Z. thank the Sea Around Us Project, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Data reported in this paper are tabulated in the Supplementary Information and archived at http://ohi.nceas.ucsb.edu/data. Results can be explored and visualized at http://oceanhealthindex.org.

Author information


  1. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 735 State St Suite 300, Santa Barbara, California 93101, USA

    • Benjamin S. Halpern
    • , Catherine Longo
    • , Darren Hardy
    • , Jennifer O’Leary
    • , Marla Ranelletti
    •  & Courtney Scarborough
  2. Center for Marine Assessment and Planning, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Benjamin S. Halpern
  3. COMPASS, Oregon State University, Department of Zoology, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-2914, USA

    • Karen L. McLeod
  4. Conservation Biology Division, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2725 Montlake Boulevard East, Seattle, Washington 98112, USA

    • Jameal F. Samhouri
  5. Conservation International, 2011 Crystal Drive, Arlington, Virginia 22202, USA

    • Steven K. Katona
    • , Andrew A. Rosenberg
    • , Elizabeth R. Selig
    • , Leah Bunce Karrer
    •  & Gregory S. Stone
  6. Sea Around Us Project, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Colombia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Kristin Kleisner
    • , Daniel Pauly
    • , U. Rashid Sumaila
    •  & Dirk Zeller
  7. Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Sarah E. Lester
  8. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Sarah E. Lester
    • , Steven D. Gaines
    •  & Kelsey I. Jacobsen
  9. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA

    • Benjamin D. Best
  10. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA

    • Daniel R. Brumbaugh
  11. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • F. Stuart Chapin
  12. Center for Ocean Solutions and Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, Monterey, California 93940, USA

    • Larry B. Crowder
  13. College of Marine Science, University of South Florida, St Petersburg, Florida 33705, USA

    • Kendra L. Daly
  14. Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Scott C. Doney
  15. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Cristiane Elfes
  16. IUCN Global Species Programme/Conservation International, Biodiversity Assessment Unit, 2011 Crystal Drive, Arlington, Virginia 22202, USA

    • Cristiane Elfes
  17. Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02453, USA

    • Michael J. Fogarty
  18. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology & Center for Environmental Studies, Box 1943, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Heather M. Leslie
  19. COMPASS, University of Washington, School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Elizabeth Neeley
  20. Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, 1994 Buford Avenue, St Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Stephen Polasky
  21. New England Aquarium, Central Wharf, Boston, Massachusetts 02110, USA

    • Bud Ris
  22. Department of Geography, Rutgers University, 54 Joyce Kilmer Drive, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854, USA

    • Kevin St Martin


  1. Search for Benjamin S. Halpern in:

  2. Search for Catherine Longo in:

  3. Search for Darren Hardy in:

  4. Search for Karen L. McLeod in:

  5. Search for Jameal F. Samhouri in:

  6. Search for Steven K. Katona in:

  7. Search for Kristin Kleisner in:

  8. Search for Sarah E. Lester in:

  9. Search for Jennifer O’Leary in:

  10. Search for Marla Ranelletti in:

  11. Search for Andrew A. Rosenberg in:

  12. Search for Courtney Scarborough in:

  13. Search for Elizabeth R. Selig in:

  14. Search for Benjamin D. Best in:

  15. Search for Daniel R. Brumbaugh in:

  16. Search for F. Stuart Chapin in:

  17. Search for Larry B. Crowder in:

  18. Search for Kendra L. Daly in:

  19. Search for Scott C. Doney in:

  20. Search for Cristiane Elfes in:

  21. Search for Michael J. Fogarty in:

  22. Search for Steven D. Gaines in:

  23. Search for Kelsey I. Jacobsen in:

  24. Search for Leah Bunce Karrer in:

  25. Search for Heather M. Leslie in:

  26. Search for Elizabeth Neeley in:

  27. Search for Daniel Pauly in:

  28. Search for Stephen Polasky in:

  29. Search for Bud Ris in:

  30. Search for Kevin St Martin in:

  31. Search for Gregory S. Stone in:

  32. Search for U. Rashid Sumaila in:

  33. Search for Dirk Zeller in:


B.S.H., C.L., K.L.M., J.F.S., S.K.K., S.E.L., A.A.R., D.R.B., F.S.C., L.B.C., K.L.D., S.C.D., M.J.F., S.D.G., L.B.K., H.M.L., S.P., K.S.M., B.R. and G.S.S. conceived and planned the study. B.S.H., C.L., D.H., S.E.L., J.O., M.R., C.S., E.R.S., B.D.B., C.E., K.I.J., D.P., U.R.S. and D.Z. aided with data collection and database development. B.S.H., C.L., D.H., K.L.M., J.F.S., S.K.K., K.K., S.E.L., A.A.R., C.S., E.R.S., F.S.C., K.L.D., S.C.D., C.E., M.J.F., S.D.G., L.B.K., H.M.L., U.R.S. and D.Z. helped with data interpretation. B.S.H., C.L., D.H., K.L.M., J.F.S., S.K.K., K.K., S.E.L., J.O., M.R., A.A.R., C.S., E.R.S., B.D.B., D.R.B., S.C.D., M.J.F., S.D.G. and S.P. developed index and goal-specific models. B.S.H., C.L., D.H., A.A.R., S.C.D. and M.J.F. conducted analyses. B.S.H., C.L., K.L.M., J.F.S., B.D.B. and E.N. developed the figures. B.S.H. drafted the initial manuscript and provided overall project management. All authors edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin S. Halpern.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Tables 1-33, Supplementary Figures 1-9 and Supplementary References. The Supplementary Methods provide detailed descriptions of the general framework for calculating the index, goal-specific methodologies, and details about each data layer used. The Supplementary Results present sensitivity analyses on each of the key parameters in the index model. Supplementary Tables 1-33 give comprehensive information on data used and complete results for each country for each goal and sub-goal, and for certain sensitivity analyses. Supplementary Figures 1-9 include visualizations of how the index is calculated maps for sub-goal results, and a variety of outputs from correlation and sensitivity analyses. This file was replaced 23 January 2013.

About this article

Publication history






Rights and permissions

To obtain permission to re-use content from this article visit RightsLink.


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.