Published on Voices

Why We Have to Save the Ocean

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There is hardly a better place to focus on the ocean than Cape Town, South Africa. With the dramatic Twelve Apostles mountain range as a backdrop, only a narrow street separated us from the Atlantic coastline embracing this city. On March 20, I attended the first meeting of the Global Ocean Commission, a new independent task force of international leaders looking for ways to protect the high seas.

When Minister Trevor Manuel of South Africa invited me to join as a commissioner, I did not hesitate. As an Indonesian, I understand all too well both the predicament and the value of the ocean. At the World Bank, we have been participating in the development of a Global Partnership for Oceans (GPO), a coalition of over 125 groups aiming to increase investment and collaboration in a healthier ocean that can do more to reduce poverty.

The Global Ocean Commission was launched on February 12, 2013, to develop policy ideas and build international coalitions to reverse the degradation of the high seas – the part of the ocean that is not under the jurisdiction of any one nation. For that reason, the commission is a powerful complement to the GPO, which focuses largely on supporting countries’ efforts to better manage their coastal waters.

If you were to ask me what our biggest challenge is, I would say it is to convince politicians who have to grapple with day-to-day domestic issues that the ocean matters.

During my stay in Cape Town, I listened to a lot of conclusive science and saw a lot of convincing economic data. Let’s be clear, the facts are stark. If we don’t act, the ocean’s future—and by extension ours—is bleak.

Here it is in a nutshell:  One billion people in developing countries depend on fish as their primary source of protein, and 350 million jobs are linked to the health of the oceans. Yet 57% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited. Another 30% are over-exploited, depleted or recovering. An increasing share of important marine habitats like coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds are being destroyed or degraded. You can learn about the impact in this video.

The problems of the ocean are both global and local. They will affect all of us and very soon, regardless of where we live. They are mainly man-made, caused by over-fishing, habitat loss, pollution, and climate change-related acidification and warming. There is no shortage of treaties and international commitments to address these challenges.  However the genesis of the law of the sea, the nature of many treaties and the sheer expanse of the ocean makes it difficult to enforce good behavior. On the contrary, nations are in a race for ocean resources, often ignoring the impact.

It is not all gloom, however. There are success stories of reversing the effects, and fish stocks can recover if we have the will to act quickly.

That is why the work of the Global Ocean Commission is timely. Together with the Global Partnership for Oceans and other efforts, we must call for attention and urgent action to restore ocean health. This is one global challenge that must and can be met, and the benefits of doing so for coastal and island nations around the world would be enormous. 


Sri Mulyani Indrawati

Former Managing Director and COO

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