Healthy oceans key to fighting poverty

Posted: 21 May 2002

Author: Anne Platt McGinn

Because of the importance of oceans in the global economy and climate system, we will not achieve lasting and sustainable development without healthy coasts and oceans. Well-managed, productive fisheries play a significant role in global economic development, food security, poverty alleviation, trade, and human health. But since the Earth Summit in 1992, most coastal resources have suffered from overuse and degradation. Current efforts to protect coasts and oceans will fail to achieve their full potential unless they are better integrated in the broader social development agenda that is the focus of the upcoming 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Coastal and marine resources provide rich assets for building a sustainable world. The value of marine ecological goods and services is estimated to be $21 trillion annually, 70 per cent more than terrestrial systems. One billion people rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein, primarily in developing countries. Some 90 per cent of the world's commercial fish are caught in coastal regions and along the continental shelves.

Human pressures on coastal resources are increasing rapidly. Nearly half of humanity - some 2.8 billion people - lives within 100 kilometres of a coast today, up from 2 billion in 1992. Most of the world's mega-cities (more than 8 million residents) are coastal. By mid-century, the number of coastal dwellers is expected to swell to 6.3 billion people, some 75 per cent of the world's population. Coastal regions also support the highest concentration of supporting infrastructure, manufacturing facilities, energy use, tourism, and food production in the world. Given their enormous economic and ecological value, it is critical to protect these areas.

Since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, scientists have recognized that overfishing has become the major driving force behind marine ecosystem collapse in many regions. The global fish catch has stagnated since 1990. Seventy per cent of fish stocks are now fully- or over-exploited. Commercial fishing is also grossly wasteful: in the process of harvesting 85 million tons of fish each year, fishers routinely discard at least 20 million tons of "bycatch," unwanted fish and marine species that are usually killed.

During the 1990s, the world's coral reefs took a serious beating. Between 1992 and 2000, the share of coral reefs that has been severely damaged from direct human pressures and global warming climbed from 10 per cent to 27 per cent. And 60 per cent of the world's coral reefs could be destroyed by 2030 if ocean waters continue to warm.

Pollution, overfishing, and land-based activities-like deforestation, agriculture, freshwater diversions, and industrial development-all contribute to the degradation of valuable coastal habitats. Half of the world's coastal wetlands have been filled in or irreversibly altered by development.

Coastal impairment also has direct effects on human health. In developing countries, 70 per cent of industrial wastes and 90 per cent of sewage are released untreated into surface waters where they pollute aquifers, freshwater resources, and coastal areas. People develop an estimated 250 million cases of gastroenteritis and upper respiratory diseases each year from swimming in contaminated sea water. And toxic chemicals have contributed to reproductive failure in marine mammals and health problems in people who eat fish. (Two-thirds of marine mammals are now classified as threatened species under the IUCN Red List.)

Fish farming has increased fish yields while damaging coastal areas. Since Rio, global aquaculture production has more than doubled, from 15 million metric tons (MT) of fish in 1992 to 36 million MT in 2000. About 40 per cent of farmed fish are raised in coastal and marine areas. These fish farming operations have resulted in the destruction of mangrove swamps, the widescale pollution from antibiotics and other chemicals, and the displacement of traditional fisheries.

One of the largest potential threats to all marine and coastal resources is global warming. Global climate change will warm average ocean temperatures, alter marine circulation patterns, and affect marine biological productivity.

Climate change will also contribute to rising sea levels, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a one-metre rise in sea levels during the next 80 years. Higher sea levels increase the impact of storm surges, accelerate habitat degradation, alter tidal ranges, change sediment and nutrient circulation patterns, and exacerbate flooding.

Rising sea levels will displace approximately one billion people who live within a few meters of sea level. Many of these people will be living in the poorest and most heavily populated countries of the world.


Countries have negotiated a number of strong, ecologically-based marine agreements since Rio, including the UN Convention on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (hereafter, UN Fish Stocks Agreement) and the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities. But we are still far from putting these agreements fully into practice around the world. Johannesburg offers a good opportunity to build momentum to comply with these agreements, and to highlight the importance of healthy oceans in addressing poverty, food security, and population issues. To protect oceans and coastal resources, we need to implement coastal management programs, improve the management of fisheries, increase consumer and business pressure for sustainable fisheries, and stop global warming.

Implement Coastal Management Programs

  • Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 and the Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity of the Convention on Biological Diversity called on countries to implement national plans to protect coastal resources. While there has been progress in putting these plans in place, half of the world's coastal countries still do not have any type of coastal legislation in place. And a majority of countries have no formal mechanism to coordinate coastal and ocean issues, let alone to integrate marine issues with land use, urbanization, and population issues.

  • To be effective, integrated coastal management should engage local representatives from various sectors that affect coastal areas, including tourism and agriculture, as well as underrepresented stakeholders, especially women.

  • In order to achieve the UN Millennium Declaration's goal to cut in half the number of people living in poverty by 2015, the World Bank and foreign aid agencies should target poverty reduction programs in growing coastal areas.

  • As called for under the Jakarta Mandate, countries should work to identify areas of high marine biological diversity, especially coral reefs and threatened shallow waters, and enact regionally-based networks of Marine Protected Areas.

  • Countries should heed the Global Program of Action's call to voluntarily improve sanitation and municipal wastewater management to protect human health and coastal resources.

Improve Fisheries Management

  • The UN Fish Stocks Agreement came into force in December 2001, but 15 of the top 20 fishing nations have not yet ratified the agreement. It is critical that all distant-water fishing nations ratify the agreement.

  • Fishing states should quickly implement the International Plan of Action to Prevent Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing. Countries must invest in better enforcement and monitoring in international and territorial waters.

  • The October 2001 Reykjavik Declaration on Responsible Fisheries and the 1995 Food and Agriculture Orgainization (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries both call for an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. To meet this goal, fishing nations should apply right-to-know principles to fisheries data collection.

  • In recognition of the success of the 1991 UN Moratorium on High Seas Driftnets, UN member states should limit other types of damaging fishing gear, especially longlines and industrial trawlers with high rates of bycatch.

  • Fish-consuming countries should pressure the world's top fishing nations to examine and phase-out $15 billion in annual fishing subsidies.

  • Many subsidies buy access rights for industrial country vessels to fish in developing countries, where they often compete with small-scale fishers. Developing countries should thus negotiate stricter terms of access and prohibit entry altogether where the resource is depleted.

Increase Consumer and Business Pressure for Sustainable Fisheries

  • FAO, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and World Trade Organization (WTO) should create a regime by which fish that are independently certified as ecologically sound, through groups like the Marine Stewardship Council, can receive preferential treatment under bilateral trade agreements.

  • Consumer organizations should evaluate fisheries on whether they are sustainably managed, in addition to the information these groups already supply about chemical and biological contamination.

  • Seafood retailers, restaurant and aquarium suppliers, and consumers should purchase ecologically-sound certified fish whenever possible.

Address Global Warming

  • Currently 25 per cent of the world's energy supplies come from coastal and offshore resources. To help slow the rise in carbon emissions, companies involved in marine-based energy operations should receive tax credits for investing in renewable, ocean-based energy sources, including tidal, offshore wind, and ocean thermal.

This World Summit Policy Brief #5 was reproduced with kind permission from the Worldwatch Institute. For more information, email: or visit their website at: