How much are the oceans worth? Somewhere between $16 and $54 trillion a year according to this report. It may be more, nobody really knows, although Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), a global partnership of developed and developing countries, international organisations, NGOs and academics, is hoping to find out over the next few years.
The Global Partnership for the Oceans cites figures for some parts of the ocean. Coral reefs for instance provide services to humans worth $172 billion annually. Fisheries are even more lucrative, with seafood sales at $190 billion a year for the catches alone, before the value added by processing. You could add another $50 billion if the fisheries were managed efficiently, according to a World Bank study quoted in Rebuilding Fisheries, a new OECD publication launched this week during OECD Day at Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea.
One statistic you’ll see quoted in most discussions about the oceans’ importance is that they cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. What’s less well-known is that the oceans supply almost 99% of the “living space” for our planet’s creatures, far more than the vertical strip of soil and sky we usually think about when biodiversity is mentioned. Very few humans live for long in this space, but two-thirds of us are within 100 km of the sea, so coastal cities feature prominently in discussions of the blue economy (and in the data visualization tool our colleagues at the OECD Factblog developed for the Expo).
The theme of Expo 2012 is the “blue economy” – the various activities taking place on, under or near the ocean. As one of the world’s leading shipbuilding, trading and fishing nations, Korea has a vested interest in using ocean resources in a sustainable way. However, the aim of the exhibition, and the OECD’s contribution to it, is to show that the oceans are vital for all of us. On a global scale, for example, they regulate the world’s climate and provide 16% of the animal proteins we consume. They are important sources of oil and gas, and increasingly of renewable energies too.
Unfortunately, our attitudes have changed little from earlier times when it made sense to talk of “the infinite oceans”. Now, 85% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted. Fertilizer run-off and fossil-fuel use have created 405 oxygen-starved dead zones worldwide, compared with 49 in the 1960s, covering a total area the size of the UK. While we’re making geographical comparisons, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” drifting around the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, known as covers the ocean with plastic debris over an area as big as Texas. And according to some reports, just 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760m cars.
None of these problems can be solved in isolation from the others, nor from a variety of external influences. Fisheries reform for instance can influence and be influenced by labour policy, regional development, environmental legislation, taxes, and tourism, and that’s just on a national scale. A similar list could be drawn up for any ocean-related issue, prompting OECD Deputy Secretary-General Yves Leterme to call for “a more holistic policy perspective to the management of the oceans, their uses and resources” in Yeosu. Leterme and the President of the Korea Maritime Institute (KMI), Dr.Hak-So Kim signed a Statement of Intent between the two organisations which underlines their intention to strengthen co-operation on work related to the future of the blue economy.