Harsh ocean harvest could impact things like toothpaste, medicine

Natural products that come from the ocean, like sponges, shells, corals, and seaweed, are used to make everything from toothpaste to medicine.

These natural products are a big business globally, but a new method of measuring the health of the ocean says we could be doing more to preserve and maximize these gifts from the sea.

"Natural products are ways that people can use the ocean, benefit from the ocean, by harvesting products such as sponges, corals, shells, ornamental fish for the aquarium trade, fish oil and other things that aren't eaten, but that have value," said Steve Katona, managing director of the Ocean Health Index.

The worldwide natural products harvest is valued at more than $2.5 billion each year. Fish oil accounts for more than half of that, but another big player in natural products is seaweed.

"I think a number of people don't know that we harvest a significant amount of seaweed from the ocean," said Heather Tausig, associate vice president of conservation for the New England Aquarium. "It's used in various things from toothpaste to ice cream, and it's a really important part, actually, of the aquaculture sector."

The natural products trade provides jobs and economic support for people and communities around the world. But over-harvesting and destructive collection methods can harm ecosystems and jeopardize the future of these lucrative gifts from the sea.

The Ocean Health Index measures the overall health of the ocean based on ten human needs including natural products. The worldwide natural products score for 2012 is just 40 out of 100.

Some countries do better than others. For instance, Costa Rica scored 97 while the United States scored just 35.

Low scores indicate more could be done to maximize natural products through better management; working to increase low harvests and or to scale back over-harvesting.

"I think one other way to think about natural products is not just what we consume, but also what we enjoy," said Tausig.

Ornamental fish are also considered a natural product of the ocean. Up to 20 million fish - almost exclusively harvested from coral reefs - make their way to aquariums every year.

By far the US is the biggest buyer. It's a $123 million business, but the reefs pay the price: 55% are threatened by over-fishing or destructive fishing due in part to the aquarium trade.

"Ornamental fish is a good example of animals that we take out of the ocean sort of for our enjoyment, not necessarily consumption," said Tausig.

To learn more about the health of our ocean and what it means for you and your family, visit