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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. According to the OECD, oceans contribute $1.5 trillion annually in value-added to the overall economy and this number could reach $3 trillion by 2030.

The FAO estimates that around 60 million people are employed worldwide in fishing (39 million) and fish farming (20.5 million). Most are in developing countries, and are small-scale, artisanal fishers and fish farmers. In 2018, global fisheries and aquaculture amounted to approximately 179 million tons, with a “first sale” value estimated at US$401 billion, generating over US$164 billion in exports, including 60 percent from developing countries. In 2017, fish provided about 3.3 billion people with almost 20 percent of their average intake of animal protein, with an even higher proportion in many poor countries (FAO 2020).

Healthy oceans and coastal ecosystems are crucial for economic growth and food production, but they are also essential contributors to global efforts to mitigate climate change. “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. In turn, warming oceans and atmospheric carbon are causing ocean acidification, which threatens the balance and productivity of the oceans.

And yet, while ocean resources boost growth and wealth, they have been brought to the brink from anthropogenic impacts. Fish stocks managed beyond biologically sustainable levels rose from 10 percent in 1974 to 34.2 percent in 2017, while in the same year approximately 60 percent of fish stocks were fished at maximally sustainable levels (fully exploited) (FAO 2020). 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’s Sunken Billions report, more than US$80 billion in foregone economic benefits are lost every year due to overfishing and overcapacity. In addition, critical fish habitats are also under pressure from pollution, coastal development, and destructive fishing practices that undermine fish stock recovery.   

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 also threatened by marine pollution from multiple sources, mostly land-based but also from activities at sea. Plastics are one of the most visible part 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.

Responding to COVID-19

The spread of COVID-19 has 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. Increasing the level of fishing, by encouraging more people to start fishing, is a dangerous precedent that has been set in response to other crises and poses a serious risk to the sustainability of fisheries and the jobs they provide. Likewise, 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 can help client countries respond to this pressure and to protect the integrity of fish stocks.

Other sectors impacted by COVID-19 are ecotourism and coastal tourism, where people have experienced a decrease in income or have 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 can help support local communities through investments to provide quick livelihood support in sectors like fisheries, tourism, and ecotourism, and thus help client countries build back better. These efforts include World Bank support to smaller enterprises, easing some of the impacts of job losses, including for women and vulnerable groups.

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 as countries strive to revitalize their coastal economies.

Finally, the COVID-19 crisis poses 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 will continue 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 is continuing to increase 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 06, 2022