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Photo: Andrea Borgarello / World Bank - TerrAfrica

Healthy oceans provide jobs and food, sustain economic growth, regulate the climate, and support the well-being of coastal communities.

Billions of people worldwide —especially the world’s poorest— rely on healthy oceans as a source of jobs and food, underscoring the urgent need to sustainably use, manage and protect this natural resource.

Yet oceans are going through a triple environmental crisis: (1) the impact of climate change on oceans - the largest global carbon sink; (2) biodiversity losses; and (3) pollution, in particular plastic pollution.   This is not just degrading the ocean but endangering the safety, livelihoods, and food security of people, especially coastal communities.

Oceans are the largest carbon sink, absorbing greenhouse gases and significantly mitigate the impacts of climate change – yet oceans are being threatened by rising temperatures, acidification, and sea level rise. “Blue carbon” sinks such as mangroves tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests. They also protect coastal communities from floods and storms. Properly valuing the role played by mangroves and seagrass beds – can achieve the triple win of: adaptation and resilience to sea level rise and erosion; addressing climate crisis with its critical role in storing carbon and  reducing ocean acidification; and ensuring coastal communities are safer and more prosperous.

The  FAO estimates that around 58.5 million people are employed worldwide in primary fish production alone – of which approximately 21 percent women. Including subsistence and secondary-sector workers, and their dependents, it is estimated that about 600 million livelihoods depend at least partially on fisheries and aquaculture.  Most are in developing countries, and are small-scale, artisanal fishers and fish farmers. In 2019 aquatic foods provided about 3.3 billion people with at least 20 percent of their average intake of animal protein, with an even higher proportion in many poor countries, (FAO 2022). And yet, while ocean resources boost growth and wealth, they have been brought to the brink from anthropogenic impacts. The FAO estimates that, worldwide, the percentage of fishery stocks not within biologically sustainable levels rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 35.4 percent in 2019.

Globally, fish stocks are significantly affected by illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, though the exact magnitude of the matter is difficult to assess accurately. According to the World Bank study The Sunken Billions Revisited, fishing less would result in a 40% increase in global landed value, while also reducing the costs by more than 40%. The study further shows that a sustainable equilibrium for global marine fisheries, at which point the maximum net benefits could be achieved, would require a reduction of the global fishing effort by 44%. Improved fisheries management, investment in sustainable aquaculture and protection of key habitats could help restore the productivity of oceans and generate benefits worth billions of dollars in developing countries, while ensuring future growth, food security and jobs for coastal communities.

Oceans are threatened by marine pollution from multiple sources, mostly land-based but also from activities at sea. Plastics are one of the most visible parts of this pollution; and microplastics have been found around the world, in the food chain, air, oceans, rainwater, and ice in the Arctic. Plastic pollution hurts economies, ecosystems, food security, and evidence is rising on potential impacts on human health, including presence of microplastics in our blood. Without proper actions along the value chain, the total cost to governments of managing plastic waste between 2021 and 2040 will by some estimates reach US$670 billion, and the cost of inaction can be particularly high for businesses (estimated at US$100 billion annual financial risk, by 2040). Addressing plastic pollution requires a combination of solutions that are complex, multi-sectoral, and country specific. It requires putting a stop to leakages by improving solid waste management, building a more circular economy for public and private sector (including designing out waste and pollution, developing alternatives to single-use plastics or redesigning them to make them more recyclable, promoting the development of new industry sectors such as reuse/remanufacture, and developing more financially sustainable recycling markets), and restoring ecosystems through clean-up.

The maritime economy is vast. Marine shipping accounts for trillions of dollars in trade. Ocean tourism is also valued in the trillions. Offshore energy, such as oil, gas, and wind, also make up the maritime economy.

Looking the linkages between climate, biodiversity, and development across oceanic sectors must be considered. What is needed is a sustainable and integrated development approach of the different economic sectors for a healthy ocean, not business as usual siloed approach.

Coastal communities, particularly in small island developing states, are heavily reliant on marine resources for their livelihoods and food security. Engaging these communities in conservation, restoration, and sustainable management of natural habitats can provide much-needed income in the short term, while building socio-economic resilience in the long-term.

Response to COVID-19

The spread of COVID-19 disrupted lives, communities, and economies worldwide, including for those who depend on oceans for their livelihoods.

This includes fisheries, which play a key role for food security and livelihoods but are under threat when they are not managed sustainably and disruptions in the value chain threaten the ability of fishers and fish workers to bring their products to market. Through its sustainable fisheries portfolio, the Bank helped client countries respond to this pressure.

Other sectors impacted by COVID-19 were ecotourism and coastal tourism, where people had experienced a decrease in income or lost their livelihoods altogether and faced increased health and safety risks. Long-term interruptions of tourism have significant consequences for the countries whose domestic economy relies on this sector for their domestic economy. The World Bank supported local communities through investments to provide quick livelihood support in sectors like fisheries, tourism, and ecotourism – helping client countries build back better. These efforts included World Bank support to smaller enterprises, easing some of the impacts of job losses, including for women and vulnerable groups.

Finally, the COVID-19 crisis posed difficult short-term choices between health and the environment, with increased use of single-use plastics and pressure on solid waste systems, accompanied by a drop in recycled materials because of hygiene concerns and the low price of virgin plastics. World Bank projects that had been initiated long before the pandemic are now more relevant than ever. The World Bank is uniquely positioned to tackle this issue and continues to do so.

We finance solid waste management, recycling, clean production, and policy reforms for carbon pricing and green growth. We also support countries transitioning to a circular economy in countries like Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Morocco, and Pakistan. In low-capacity environments, where waste systems are stretched or collapsed, the rivers leading into oceans are often used as dumping sites for medical waste. The World Bank increased its support to healthcare waste management activities in COVID-19 emergency projects, with the Bank’s Environment team strengthening and improving healthcare waste management and providing gear and capacity building to health care providers (utilizing Occupational Health and Safety guidelines).

Last Updated: Apr 05, 2023