Assessing the Health of Brazil’s Ocean

Every year, millions of people pour onto Brazil’s beaches to soak up the sun, supporting local economies and thousands of jobs. The country’s sardine, corvina and snapper fisheries provide food and livelihoods for millions more.

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro’s famous Ipanema Beach. (© OSTILL)

With a coastline stretching 7,491 kilometers (4,655 miles) and over two-thirds of the country’s population residing in its 17 coastal states, Brazil is undoubtedly big ocean country. However, there has been no way of assessing the health of the country’s oceans and coasts in a holistic way — until now.

This week, an Ocean Health Index regional assessment of Brazil’s coastal states was published in the journal PLOS ONE, providing a much-needed mechanism to understand and manage the country’s oceans.

Launched in 2012 by CI and partners, the Ocean Health Index global assessment uses over 100 global databases to assess the health of the ocean in terms of 10 categories or goals. Because humans are an integral part of ocean ecosystems, these goals include biological, physical, economic and social dimensions.

Scores range from 0–100, with 100 being the “top” score indicating that we are enjoying optimum, sustainable ocean productivity. The 2013 global assessment calculated the 10 goal scores each for 221 countries and territories with shorelines.

fisherman, Bahia, Brazil

Local fisherman in Bahia, Brazil. (© Conservation International/photo by Peter Stonier)

When Dr. Cristiane Elfes, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reviewed the global Ocean Health Index, she and a team of scientists decided to see if it could be used at the country and state level. She wanted to use the Index framework to study Brazil’s states using more site-specific data than the info that informed the global assessment.

Brazil is a fast-developing country that is rich in natural resources — a perfect test for the Index. By determining individual state scores, stakeholders in the country are able to assess what regions are having problems and where aspects of ocean health are very good.

This study is the first published regional assessment of the Ocean Health Index. CI was a main partner of this process at all levels, from collecting data and sharing access to databases to co-authoring the assessment.

Brazil’s national average score was 60 out of 100. This shows there’s much work to be done to ensure that the ocean can continue to provide the benefits on which the country depends.

coral in Abrolhos National Park, Brazil

Coral in Brazil’s Abrolhos National Park, off the coast of Bahia. Thought to contain the richest concentration of marine life in the South Atlantic, this region is a popular dive tourism destination. (© Luciano Candisani/iLCP)

Here are three notable discoveries:

1. Discrepancy in tourism scores

The goal with the lowest average score for all the states was tourism. However, examining individual state scores reveals a big split in the country.

Bahia (88) and Rio de Janeiro (100) got the only high scores for sustainable tourism because of their comparatively high number of tourism jobs relative to the area. This isn’t a surprise to any of us who have seen the beautiful beaches or celebrated Carnival in Rio. But the lack of tourism in the other states has a negative impact on the economy.

The rest of the states scored below 60, with many states scoring less than 10. This is due to the low number of tourism jobs in those states, in addition to lower sustainability. Brazil’s northern states — which tend to have less prosperous economies — all had tourism scores below 35.

2. Declining seafood provision

Seafood provision scored below 50 in every state. Wild-caught fisheries scores are all in the 40s, reflecting the fact that the harvests are decreasing due to overfishing and damaging fishing techniques.

The other key factor was the low sustainable aquaculture on the shoreline (mainly shrimp farms). Low scores were due to either low production yields or to production of unsustainable species, especially whiteleg shrimp, which cause severe mangrove loss, erosion and pollution — particularly in the northeastern states.

3. Amapá leading the way for coastal protection

The small state in the far north of Brazil scored 98 in the “sense of place” goal because it has almost reached the target value of 30% protection of the coastal zone. This is the highest “sense of place” score in the country.

masked boobies, Abrolhos, Brazil

Masked boobies on Brazil’s Abrolhos archipelago. (© Charles Young/ paisagembrasileira.com)

The assessment revealed that scores are tightly connected to the local economy; overall, wealthier states received higher scores.

For example, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the most developed states, are likely to improve their scores in the near future. Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Bahia are likely to maintain similar scores. But, scores for the remaining 11 states are likely to decline due to the absence of clear policies and management actions for building resilience and reducing human pressures on the ocean.

Brazil is a vibrant country enjoying economic growth and an expanding middle class. With growing industry and more demand for high-quality seafood, the pressures on ocean resources will call for strong leadership and good measurements to ensure that the ocean can keep pace.

While the collection of this data was a big effort by Cristiane Elfes and her team, it’s only the beginning. These scores will act as a baseline, allowing us to measure from here on out how well Brazil is managing its waters and coasts. In the next few months, we will be working actively to engage the various levels of government in Brazil to create strategies for sustainably maximizing the benefits Brazilians receive from the ocean.

Sebastian Troëng is the senior vice president and managing director of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans. 

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