Speeches & Transcripts

The Economist World Oceans Summit: “A New S-O-S: Save Our Seas”

February 24, 2012

Robert B. Zoellick, President, The World Bank Group Singapore

As Prepared for Delivery

“A New S-O-S: Save Our Seas”


Ladies and gentlemen,

Oceans are the lifeblood of our world.

They flow over more than 70 percent of our planet, and hold about 97 percent of its water.  They absorb heat and carbon dioxide, generate oxygen, and shape the world’s weather patterns.  They provide about 15 percent of the animal protein for the world’s population.

The air that we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.  Whether we live inland or on coastlines, each one of us relies on healthy oceans. 

So I’m particularly pleased to have this opportunity today to discuss the need for coordinated global action to restore the oceans to health.

I’d like to thank The Economist for convening this Summit, and John Micklethwait for chairing today’s session.  And I’d especially like to thank all of you for your commitment to this issue.

Addressing Oceans: Challenges and Opportunities

Over centuries, we thought that oceans were so vast, so deep, that we could take from them whatever we chose, and could dump whatever we chose into them.  Today, we know that isn’t true.  

The world’s oceans are in danger.

Fish stocks are crashing from overexploitation.  Rising pollution is flowing into the oceans from land, air, and rivers, choking plant and animal life.  Ocean habitats are disappearing – some with alarming rapidity – as coastal cities boom.   A changing climate has brought warmer oceans, higher sea levels, and ocean acidification.

Oceans are the natural capital of all countries, developed and developing; all countries suffer from degradation of these ecosystems.  There are close connections between land and water, human and ocean health, sustainable management and renewable benefits.

Yet when we devalue our natural capital, it is often the poor who feel the greatest harm.  Oceans provide a wealth of goods and services that make a tremendous contribution to overcoming poverty, creating opportunity, and spurring economic growth.

Let’s look at just one dimension of the oceans: fish and seafood.

One billion people in developing countries depend upon fish and seafood for their primary source of protein.  Over half a billion people in developing countries depend on fishing as a livelihood.  Half are women.

For developing countries, including many island and coastal nations, fish represent the single most traded food product, valued at $25 billion a year.  For many Pacific Island countries, fish make up 80 percent of total exports.

For some countries, the fishing trade is absolutely critical for their growth.  In Sierra Leone, fisheries account for as much as 10 percent of GDP; for the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, it’s 53 percent.  In Senegal, fishing creates about 600,000 jobs and employs 17 percent of the labor force.

Fishing licenses can be a critical income source.  In Guinea Bissau, the annual fishing license sold to the EU at one point represented close to 50 percent of government revenues.  When catches shrink, or a country is unable to keep other countries from fishing its seas, license prices fall too.

The living ocean is also home to millions of animal and plant species, important to maintaining ecosystem health – and to a large global industry in recreation and ecotourism.  In the Seychelles, for example, a country consisting of 115 islands, tourism accounts for 25 percent of GDP.  Coral reef tourism alone has an estimated economic value of more than $20 billion a year.  More livelihoods stem from ocean research.

Around the world, we estimate that about 350 million jobs are linked to the oceans through fishing, aquaculture, coastal and marine tourism, and research.

Ocean ecosystems – mangroves, bogs, reefs, wetlands, and barrier islands – are becoming more important for protecting increasingly populous coastal areas against natural hazards.  Some 275 million people live in coastal economies dependent on coral reefs, for example – and they are among the most vulnerable to climate change and extreme events.

For hundreds of millions of people around the world, oceans are essential for providing food, jobs, livelihoods, and protection.

Oceans are the home of an under-recognized and under-appreciated “blue economy.”   At a time when the world is looking for sources of growth, there is huge potential for “blue growth” – wisely preserving and investing in the value of ocean ecosystems to fight poverty and improve lives.

But oceans aren’t living up to their potential.

Rebuilding Oceans: What Will It Take?

Why not?

There is already a wealth of valuable knowledge and experience about how to restore our oceans – as well as considerable resources devoted to the challenge.

NGOs invest about $100 million a year in oceans.  Organizations such as Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund have done a tremendous job in bringing the problems facing oceans to public attention, while also showing the way to innovative solutions with marine protected areas and projects within countries to deal with pollution or rebuilding fish stocks.

The Global Environment Facility has invested as much as $600 million in healthy oceans, funding coastal and marine projects that are addressing issues ranging from pollution reduction to innovative approaches to conservation management.

The UN group has worked for many years on oceans management – with agencies such as the FAO playing a crucial role in measuring the health of fish stocks, for example.  The World Bank Group is investing $1.6 billion in coastal zone management, fisheries, and marine protected areas.

NOAA and other national scientific bodies have advanced marine science and ocean planning.

Many private companies are increasingly committed to establishing sustainable supplies of seafood.

But the scale of the challenge is such that these singular efforts are simply not enough.

We need a new S-O-S: Save Our Seas.
To make our oceans healthy and productive again, we need greater cooperative and integrated action around the globe, so that our efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts.

So today, I want to propose a new approach – an unprecedented Global Partnership for Oceans.

This Partnership will bring together countries, scientific centers, NGOs, international organizations, foundations, and the private sector to pool knowledge, experience, expertise, and investment around a set of agreed upon goals.

These goals can sharpen our focus, encourage common and reinforcing efforts, and compel us to measure performance.
Together, we will build on the excellent work already being done to address the threats to oceans, identify workable solutions, and scale them.  We can also mobilize financing where there are gaps.

I’ve seen in other areas that the World Bank Group is fortunately positioned to catalyze and help organize such a global partnership effort. 

Our relationships with both client governments and all shareholder supporters – based on common interests in development, growth, and sharing experiences in solving problems – offers us a valuable entry point.

We can coordinate financing and help with the global advocacy effort, using our own access to policymakers and ministers of finance, in particular, to highlight the oceans agenda, raise interest in investment, and communicate results.

We will also provide new funding, as well as leverage our existing portfolios in fisheries, coastal zone management, marine protected areas, ports, urban development, agriculture, and community development, backed by our knowledge platform.

We are asking as many organizations as possible to join this initiative.   And I am delighted to announce that the response has been extremely positive.

The World Bank already has a firm track record working on this topic with the Small Island Developing States, which face unique development issues, as well as large coastal countries such as Indonesia and India.  Some of these countries have deep experience in protecting oceans.  President Tong of Kiribati, for example, has been a leader in sustainable management of coral reefs and associated ecosystems.  Brazil is doing innovative work with the private sector and civil society in scaling up marine protected areas.  I expect these leaders and others to play key roles in the Partnership.

We are also in discussions with Australia, Monaco, New Zealand, and Norway about working with us on the Partnership.

Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, The Nature Conservancy, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and Rare Conservation are prepared to add their expertise, great capacity for innovation, and advocacy.  Together, we’re making strides on biodiversity, so we are excited to work with them to Save Our Seas.

The Global Environment Facility, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the UN Development Program, UN Environment Program, and Food and Agriculture Organization are committed to working with the Partnership.

The Prince of Wales Charities and GRID-Arendal of Norway are interested in joining forces.

Finally, but critical to our success, private sector actors – Darden Restaurants, the International Sustainable Seafood Foundation, the World Ocean Council, and the National Fisheries Institute – are engaged.

We hope that this is only the beginning of the list of organizations and companies that will join this partnership – and will join in showing effectiveness to achieve results.

First Steps

As a starting point, the Global Partnership for Oceans is committed to mobilizing at least $300 million in catalytic finance.  These are funds that would be used for technical assistance to support key governance reforms that can create the necessary incentives for long-term investment in oceans, as well as to help operate marine protected areas, and monitor and communicate lessons learned. Working with governments, the scientific community, civil society organizations, and the private sector, we aim to leverage as much as $1.2 billion to support healthy and sustainable oceans.  This would total $1.5 billion in new commitments over five years.

Goodwill and even good partners are not enough.

We need a common approach and a set of common goals.

Last September, the World Bank convened a roundtable to share ideas and come up with solutions for how to bring oceans back to health.  We brought together representatives from key countries, NGOs, and private sector players, and asked them “what will it take to restore the oceans?”  The answers focused on three key areas:

First, countries need help making better decisions about oceans.  This change starts with understanding the full value of the ocean’s wealth and ecosystem services – because, whatever the resource, it is impossible to evolve a plan to manage and grow the resource without knowing its value. 

Simply put, we cannot manage what we cannot measure.  The Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services initiative, or WAVES, is already helping developing countries to integrate the economic benefits that ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and coral reefs provide into national accounting systems.  We need to extend these tools to all ocean ecosystems.

To make better decisions, countries also need to reform policies.  Better policies and governance can create incentives – for both the public and private sectors – to reduce threats to ocean ecosystems, and to invest in long-term protection and management of critical coastal and ocean habitats.  Taxes and subsidies, for example, need to be directed with an eye toward incentives and disincentives; certification processes can be simplified; regulatory institutions and national systems for enforcing rights-based fishing can be strengthened.

Second, there are numerous areas where greater investment can make a real difference.  When a coastline is managed, better decisions are made about development.  When marine areas are protected, critical ecosystem services can recover and thrive, enhancing the ocean in neighboring spaces as well.

The National Geographic has found that in the Solomon Islands and Kenya, when marine protected reserves were established, the income of local fishermen doubled in five to seven years.  Public investments in infrastructure, research, and technology can reduce land-based pollution.  We need to show the possible returns from these investments, make them, and continue to assess performance.

Third, we need broader cooperation between the public and private sectors.  One of the striking elements in all our consultations was that we heard almost exactly the same messages from private and public organizations.  We’ve seen in other areas of development and conservation that building partnerships – sharing experience and ideas – with private and public parties to address problems in practical ways helps build a broader response from the ground – and water – up.  

With these areas of focus in mind, I’d like to propose targets for what we should achieve in the next ten years:

We should rebuild at least half the world’s fish stocks identified as depleted:  About 85 percent of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over-exploited, or depleted.  This includes most of the stocks of the top ten fish species, or about 30 percent of the world’s marine capture fisheries production.  There’s no room for further expansion – we need to start rebuilding.

We should increase the annual net benefits of fisheries to between $20 and $30 billion.  We estimate that global fisheries currently run a net economic loss of about $5 billion per year.  We need to turn this around, by allocating and enforcing the rights of fisheries and reforming subsidies.

We should more than double the area covered by marine protected areas.  Currently, less than 2 percent of the ocean’s surface is protected – compared to around 12 percent of land.  Let’s increase this to 5 percent 

We will need to work with governments and stakeholders to identify and establish sound marine protected areas where they can contribute direct economic benefits.  The scale will depend on the context: for example, in some areas, we might work with communities to introduce small-scale protected areas on local coral reef systems, while in others we may work with national governments to identify and protect large areas as part of a wider strategy for the country’s ocean ecosystems. 

We would build on the idea of supporting networks of marine protected areas, such as island chains in the Pacific.  A number of these networks already exist, but have yet to be fully implemented. 

And we should increase sustainable aquaculture to provide two thirds of the world’s fish.  Today, that figure is about 50 percent, but there are serious concerns over disease management, feed use, and introduction of non-native species.  We need to do much better, not only to help secure a reliable source of food, but also to take the pressure off of ocean fish stocks. 

This is an ambitious list.  But these targets are achievable.  They are founded on sound scientific assessment, extrapolated from World Bank project experience.

There is much more to do.  But meeting these goals will take significant steps toward reversing the dangerous, centuries-old deterioration of ocean and coastal ecosystems.

This is a critical start.


Economists now commonly reference our   interdependent world, in which developed and developing countries, rich and poor, are linked – by economics, trade, migration, climate change. 

Mariners know we are also linked by oceans. 

But we’ve taken those oceans for granted.
Our predecessors appreciated Neptune’s bounty, respected Neptune’s power, and were wary of Neptune’s wrath.
We should recall their wisdom, but add to it our insights from science, economics, and governance.

Restoring our oceans to good health is an investment in all our future.

We hope that today’s event – and our new and expanded partnership – will help us to enlist supporters and donors who are ready to take on this challenge on a global scale.  

The World Bank will be convening a first meeting of the Global Partnership for Oceans in Washington, DC this April.  I invite all of you to attend.

Send out the S-O-S: We need to Save Our Seas.
Thank you.