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The Living Oceans

Ocean Indonesia. Credit: Carl Gustav/World Bank

At a Glance
  • The oceans have emerged as a ‘new’ frontier of opportunity for green and inclusive growth. An estimated 61 percent of the world’s total GNP comes from areas within 100 kilometers of the coastline, and the oceans as a whole provide 16 percent of the global population’s animal protein intake. Healthy, bio-diverse, and economically productive oceans are essential for food security, jobs, and the sustainable quality of life on earth. Managing ocean resources better can be a source of green and inclusive growth for many countries.

  • Over-exploitation resulting from poor governance is undermining the socio-economic performance of ocean and coastal resources. Overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss have resulted not only in oceans under-achieving their true socio-economic potential in terms of livelihoods and jobs; they also increase risks to human health, diminish opportunities for economic growth for the world’s poorest coastal states, and endanger the right of future generations to enjoy a clean, healthy marine environment.

  • The Global Partnership for Oceans is a diverse coalition of stakeholders representing public, private, and civil-society interests with one common goal: to restore global ocean health so that these ecosystems can make a much greater and more sustainable contribution to the global economy.

The Challenge

Healthy ocean ecosystems, or the ‘living oceans’, face threats on numerous fronts. Eighty-five percent of global ocean fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, or depleted. More than 60% of global coral reefs are under direct threat from locally based land- and ocean-based activity. Excess run-off from land-based activity such as agricultural fertilizer has resulted in ocean dead-zones the equivalent to the size of Great Britain. Over 46,000 pieces of plastic are floating on every square mile of ocean globally. Climate change compounds these ecological challenges by raising ocean temperature (impacting base-of-food-chain organisms) and increasing ocean acidity (the result of higher carbon-dioxide concentrations), causing coral bleaching and thus increasing the risk of species extinction and putting the productive ecosystem at risk.


Oceans cover 71% of the planet. Our oceans feed us, provide a source of livelihood and economic stability, regulate our climate, and so much more.

Why are Oceans Important?

Healthy oceans serve as an ecological life preserver for current and future generations.

  • Food: 1 billion people depend on fish for their primary source of protein.
  • Climate: Oceans absorb heat and carbon dioxide, generate oxygen, and help regulate the world’s weather patterns. Coastal habitats like mangrove forests and sea grass beds sequester up to five times the carbon that tropical forests store.
  • Livelihoods: 90% of the people who derive livelihoods from fishing live in developing countries. Globally, an estimated 350 million jobs are linked to the oceans through fishing, aquaculture, coastal and marine tourism, and research.

The Oceans’ Wealth

Oceans account for a lot of the planet’s wealth.

  • International trade in fish and fish products involves some 85 nations and is worth US$102 billion per year, with tuna alone representing US$10 billion per year.
  • For many developing countries, fish represent their most significant traded food product, valued at US$25 billion a year—more than double the value of trade in coffee.
  • Ecotourism related to reefs is a business now estimated to be worth at least US$9 billion per year.

The Pollution Problem

Our oceans are under severe stress from pollution.

  • Nitrogen fertilizer application—a huge source of ocean pollution—has increased fivefold since 1960. The result: 405 “dead zones” covering 95,000 square miles, where most marine life cannot survive.
  • Plastic pollution has become a notable blight, with an International Union for Conservation of Nature report estimating that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic afloat on every square mile of ocean.

Habitat Loss

Loss of ocean and coastal habitats strains the ability of nature to provide the services we have become to depend on.

  • As a result of expanding coastal population centers, 35% of global mangrove, 20% of coral reefs, and 30% of sea grass beds have been destroyed.

Sustainable Catch

Overfishing is exhausting a critical source of protein and livelihood.

  • About 85% of the world’s ocean fisheries are categorized as fully exploited, over-exploited, or depleted.
  • Cumulative loss to economies from fisheries mismanagement is estimated to be US$2.2 trillion for the past three decades.
  • Intense competition and increasingly sophisticated technology is translating into ever larger catches, placing overall fishing capacity at 2.5 times sustainable harvest levels.

Economic concerns are equally pressing. The global economy has lost US$2.2 trillion in the last 30 years from fisheries mismanagement, reflecting in part the massive technological advances and fishery subsidies during this time. Despite playing a major economic role internationally, ocean ecosystem goods and services are currently contributing far less to global economic growth than their potential allows. International trade in fisheries products totals US$102 billion per year, 25% of which belongs to developing countries. However, there are few economic incentives and often poor regulatory environments in place to encourage smart resource management or long-term sustainability of the oceans.

Clearly, the scale of the challenge is huge and warrants immediate action. Identifying and implementing strategies to address these challenges is complicated by a lack of governance structures for many uses of the oceans. But there is hope.

The Future We Want

The World Bank Group seeks to identify solutions to overcome the many challenges confronting the world’s oceans, realizing the tremendous opportunity that healthier oceans provides to the local, national, and global economy. We aim to engage all stakeholders to craft a fresh approach to marine and coastal management to create durable, long-term solutions that enhance the economic, social, and ecological performance of the world’s oceans.

We believe that with stronger and reformed institutions for managing marine resources, the long-term sustainability of the living oceans can become a bankable proposition. That means long-term private investment contributing much more to productive and essential ecosystem goods and services. There are a number of immediate and longer-term strategies that can help achieve this. Approaches include complementary strategies to promote rights-based fisheries that empower ocean-reliant coastal and island communities alongside the establishment of marine protected areas to ensure sustainability. Factoring the value of ocean goods and services into countries’ systems of national accounts will also play an important role in this effort.

Examples of short-term targets include (i) reducing subsidies and other economic incentives that contribute to overcapacity, (ii) identifying best practices in sustainability that can be verified through a global certification scheme, and (iii) striving for a zero net loss of critical coastal habitats (e.g. mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass beds).

Longer-term objectives include (i) cross-sectoral collaboration to limit land-based nutrient run-off that causes ocean dead-zones, (ii) coastal waste-water management, (iii) maritime pollution control, for example.

How to Get There

No single institution can overcome these inter-related challenges on its own. Alignment of effort between the public sector, private sector, and civil society actors engaged in the oceans sphere is required. Cooperative initiatives at the national, sub-national, and local levels will also be necessary in coastal and island nations and regions sharing common marine watercourses. A necessary first step is a forum that convenes these actors to pool knowledge, effort, and resources to bring about transformational change.

The Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO) seeks to achieve this. There has been an overwhelming response to the GPO concept from island and coastal governments, private sector, civil society organizations, donor nations, UN agencies, and academic institutions since it was announced in February 2012.

The World Bank Group is working with the many potential partners of the GPO to create a vehicle for coordinated global action for healthier oceans. In the run-up to Rio+20, the partnership’s goals, targets, geographic priority areas, and governance structure are being further defined. The goal of the partnership is to unlock the ocean’s potential to deliver socially and environmentally sustainable economic growth that benefits local and global populations and future generations.


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Last updated: 2012-04-12

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