In my 36 years of work in conservation, I have never before witnessed as much attention and concern being paid to the deteriorating health of our oceans, and the resulting consequences of that deterioration for people everywhere. Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state — an important shift in attitude that gives me reason for hope.
From the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in January to The Economist’s World Oceans Summit I attended last month in Singapore, the concerns are palpable. With the world’s population expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050 — doubling the demand for food, energy and water — corporations and governments are looking to the oceans for answers.
Oceans generate more than half of the oxygen we breathe, provide essential nutrition to over 1 billion people and generate hundreds of millions of jobs through tourism, fisheries and aquaculture. Coastal ecosystems like mangroves and coral reefs protect our coastlines from the devastating impacts of storms and tsunamis. Mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes are amongst the most efficient ecosystems at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere — and release more carbon than other ecosystems when they are destroyed.
Marine conservation is not just critical for the health of our oceans; it’s an issue of food security, economic security and national security. Corporations and governments are beginning to realize that sustainable supply chains and economic growth are only possible if we conserve the natural capital and ecosystems which underpin all human endeavors.
Only a few years ago, The Economist would never have hosted a summit on oceans for the corporate, government, academic and non-governmental sectors to come together to identify shared solutions for ocean health. In Singapore, I spoke with the CEO of Maersk Line, North Asia, the global leader in shipping; the president of Kiribati; the secretary of environment and natural resources of the Philippines; and the World Bank president. All of them share our deep concern about the health of the oceans.
Another example of the growing realization of the central role of oceans in ensuring human well-being and survival was the announcement by World Bank President Robert Zoellick of an ambitious Global Partnership for Oceans. Conservation International (CI) has been closely involved in the development of this partnership, and I welcome the World Bank’s leadership in defining clear targets and setting a short-term goal of raising $300 million in funding that is meant to leverage an additional $1.2 billion in order to recover fish stocks, expand marine protected areas, stimulate sustainable aquaculture, resolve pollution problems and adapt to climate change. Meeting these targets will mean more stable fisheries, more jobs and greater national security for countries around the world.
Institutions like the World Bank have been at the forefront of global development issues for a long time; this announcement by President Zoellick shows that the Bank is recognizing the importance of sustainable use and conservation of oceans and coastal ecosystems to its core mission of poverty alleviation. Now we need to move from lofty rhetoric and aspirational commitments to real action and measurable results. This will require even greater leadership.
The most promising direction to look for such leadership is to turn toward the Pacific Islands. President Anote Tong of Kiribati, a long-term partner of CI, spoke eloquently in Singapore about the actions taken by Kiribati to establish the Phoenix Islands Protected Area and demonstrate that healthy sustainable economies based on restoring ocean health are possible.
President Tong also highlighted the Pacific Oceanscape, the largest ocean management initiative ever conceived, which is bringing together 16 countries and six territories to collaborate on marine conservation. President Tong told me he is surprised by the high level political momentum generated already by the Pacific Oceanscape. This should be the first region for the Global Partnership for Oceans to focus its efforts.
In my entire career, I have never been involved in anything at this scale. The Pacific Oceanscape leaders — President Tong, Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands and others — are not saying they will give up economic growth, but they do want to manage their resources in a way that sustains culture and ecosystems. This is the beacon on the hill — the outlook we need to do what must be done. The time for oceans has come.
Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.