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An Ocean of Resources

Oceans cover 71% of our planet’s surface. They contain vast ecosystems, cover extensive mineral beds and wash a million kilometres of diverse coastline. Taken together, services provided  by oceans have been valued at over US$ 21 trillion, while maritime transport supports 90% of global trade volume. The fisheries sector alone creates jobs for an estimated 180 million people while providing a primary source of protein to more than 1 billion.

But the importance of oceans to our economic, social and environmental well-being remains underappreciated, with nearly 95% of the marine world still barely explored. More urgently, our marine ecosystems are facing unprecedented perils that reduce their current productivity and seriously threaten their future. Climate change, acidification, pollution, over-fishing and the degradation of coastal zones are but some of the pressures that must be confronted if the value of our oceans is to be maintained.

The Global Agenda Council on Oceans is playing an important role in bringing policy-makers and business leaders together around critical themes affecting oceans-based economic activity. Public- and private-sector leaders are increasingly recognizing the need for international, multistakeholder fora to work on oceans-based sustainable development (see, e.g., the opinion of Peter Seligmann, Head of Conservation International, in The Huffington Post this March: The success of our Council’s ocean’s-focused activities at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters reflected this growing interest, alongside other international meetings such as the recent World Oceans Summit sponsored in Singapore by The Economist. Going forward, the Council on Oceans is building on past activities by seeking to expand its agenda and – critically – to focus on understanding, engaging and supporting the role of the private sector in sound ocean resource management.

The Opportunity for Business

There is a pressing need – and opportunity – for innovative public and private investment in oceans conservation and the responsible husbandry of marine resources. A landmark study brought forward by the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has documented at least US$ 50 billion in lost benefits that could be realized every year from better organization and management of marine fishing. Aquaculture, which has provided nearly all of the growth in global fish production over recent decades, will continue to expand to provide a critical source of future food security if it can avoid driving a massive crisis of coastal and marine degradation. Coastal tourism is also rapidly growing, providing new potential for livelihoods in some of the world’s neediest places, but carrying with it the potential for destroying the natural beauty so many tourists seek. And a new frontier of mineral and energy extraction must be approached with appropriate international regulation and sustainable commercial practices.

In all of these oceans-based economic sectors, leading businesses already recognize the link between sustainability and profitability. Evolution in regulatory systems, consumer demand and investment practices are all creating opportunities for businesses to be able to help lead change rather than merely respond to it. The World Economic Forum represents an ideal platform to engage industry leaders, not only to highlight their role in sound ocean management, but also the positive impact this will have on their bottom line.

The Council would like to encourage more business involvement and has considered several potential industry sectors to target. It is working with private-sector actors to define good metrics and innovative business practices that will benefit economic prosperity, human well-being and the health of our oceans:

  • Fishing industry: All fishing-related activities are to be considered – in addition to businesses that depend on wild fisheries, it was agreed that the Council should take a close look at aquaculture.
  • Shipping industry: 90% of global trade volume is carried on ships, which constitutes a great leadership opportunity for this sector in bringing forth innovative practices to ocean management.
  • The “Sand industry”: This includes tourism, real estate development, hotels and any other industry that benefits from clean and robust beaches as well as healthy coastal ecosystems.
  • Mining industry: There is a rapidly developing commercial interest in marine minerals as a non-traditional source of critical metals, such as manganese, copper, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements both on continental shelves and in the deep seabed. This presents an opportunity for the Council to engage with an emerging industry at a critical stage of its development.
  • Energy industry: Oil and gas exploration is expanding further offshore and into deeper waters; one of the impacts of climate change has been to raise the level of interest in renewable energy sources from the oceans, such as wave energy, wind power and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).

Understanding Business Concerns

Any dialogue must begin with understanding the questions and concerns of all parties. Through ongoing consultation, the Council has identified key questions that private-sector stakeholders are bringing forth.

 Forward-thinking companies are now starting to ask:

  • How do we define “corporate ocean responsibility”?
  • Where do the boundaries of our responsibilities lie in terms of the marine ecosystem, for example:
    • Those specific species groups we harvest (such as tuna)?
    • The health of the specific fishery from which we harvest?
    • The health of regional marine ecosystems as a whole?
  • Where and what should we prioritize? Environmental or social responsibilities? And within these, for social aspects, should we prioritize:
    • Our workers?
    • The communities that depend on fisheries and our operations?
    • Our consumers?

General questions from the mainstream:

  • Where in our product lifecycles are the issues that will affect our ability to grow and succeed?
  • Which external initiatives should we be participating in or tracking? (e.g. World Bank Partnership for Oceans; International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF); Marine Stewardship Council (MSC); Ocean Health Index; International Sustainability Unit (ISU) and so on)
  • Where and when does it make sense to proactively invest in traceability? (see traceability section below)
  • What partnerships might deliver strategic benefits for our business? (e.g. NGOs and other stakeholder groups)
  • How can we gain internal buy-in from our Board? Can we get clear facts on the risks and “costs of doing nothing”?

Through its broad-based intellectual leadership, the Council is uniquely placed to provide recommendations and support businesses in answering some, if not all, of these questions. These will constitute the backbone and focus of Council work in the upcoming two years.

How Can the Council Help?

It stems from the questions above that information is lacking regarding the role of the private sector, what its impacts are, what the costs of inaction are, and what organizations and tools exist to support it. The Council has been identifying ways in which it can support businesses to clarify some of these concerns and become a trusted partner in transitioning to more sustainable practices.

Elevating visibility

Making the role of the private sector a key component of public discussions on the topic is a core action item for the Council.

This year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters enabled the Council to reap the fruit of its efforts around the topic of conciliating economic growth and development with marine conservation via an influential panel comprising Clarence Otis Jr, CEO of Darden Restaurants; Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank; Koji Seikimizu, Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO); John Micklethwait, Editor-in Chief of The Economist; and Greg Stone, Senior Vice-President and Chief Scientist for Oceans, Conservation International and Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Oceans. The role of restaurants and consumers was highlighted, such as the need for chains to demand the ethical sourcing of fish – as consumers may not necessarily be willing to pay more for sustainable products – and use their economic clout to reject unethical supply. The summary of this discussion can be found at: 

Sharing best practices

Providing examples of best-case or positive scenarios is necessary to help galvanize change in corporate practices at a large scale. The Council is developing case studies as reference points for future recommendations to various industry sectors. The shipping sector provides an interesting example to bring forth.

With 90% of global trade volume carried on ships, shipping has a significant impact on the oceans, with pollution from sea-going vessels arising from deliberate and accidental discharges of bilge and waste water, fuel and cargo leaks. Yet, following sound international governance, and an array of regulatory bodies and programmes, it can be stated that since the high profile pollution disasters of the latter half of the 20th century, shipping industry standards and behaviour have significantly improved to the betterment of business and the health of the oceans.

Shipping is controlled and regulated by the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) which, since its first meeting in 1959, has developed a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping including safety, security, training standards and the prevention and control of pollution from ships. As a global industry, the shipping sector has responded to the fact that it could not operate globally without sustainable and responsible self-regulation. It was also determined to eliminate unsafe ships, developing a culture that acknowledged good quality. Thus, a combination of regulatory bodies, led by the IMO, with industry self-regulation, like the Ship Inspection Report (SIRE) Programme, has been jointly responsible for the great advances in shipping quality.

This positive transformation of the shipping industry is an interesting example of best practice in business ocean stewardship. A networked system of good governance, combining laws and self-regulation, could be the model for other sectors.

Developing and promoting tools: A global seafood traceability system

Today, consumers, distributors and even many seafood processors commonly lack basic information about the fisheries from which fish products originate. In general, they cannot know whether the fisheries are overfished or well-managed. They cannot even be assured that the fish were caught legally – a major concern when current evidence suggests illegal fishing provides between 12-29% of the wild-caught seafood that reaches global markets.

But overfishing cannot end without some fundamental changes in the business of fishing and seafood trade. Among the most important of these changes – although seemingly mundane – is to introduce traceability and transparency into seafood supply chains. The absence of traceability for seafood is a fundamental obstacle to getting market signals in line with sustainability.

Last year, the Council began initial work on the subject of seafood traceability. It has since worked towards a consensus statement of principles and list of activities that would bring together a set of interdisciplinary voices within the Council’s network in order to explore and promote innovative ways to overcome obstacles to a workable globalized seafood traceability system. Council Members have as a result strengthened contacts with leaders of seafood businesses and foreign government authorities to realize some of the Council’s recommendations. One result is the decision of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) last year to develop a traceability system for all the major tuna and tuna-like species.

 Next Steps

  • Producing a Council statement, possibly in concert with other relevant Councils within the World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils, to promote “business-smart” policies and public-private partnerships to build a workable system of global seafood traceability
  •  Convening (and co-sponsoring / joint funding) interdisciplinary meetings among Global Agenda Council Members and different Global Agenda Councils to help explore real-world connections and solutions for the key commercial, technical and regulatory obstacles to making seafood supply fully traceable, legal and sustainable

 Developing and promoting tools: The Ocean Health Index

The Ocean Health Index (OHI), a project endorsed by the Council in 2009 to be launched in mid-2012, has the potential to help guide the way the Earth’s largest resource, our oceans, is managed. The OHI is the first global standard that is scientifically grounded and transparent. It will also have a public communications campaign. The Index, based on over 50 biophysical and socio-economic indicators, will provide an assessment of the oceans’ capacity to provide long-term benefits for human well-being. Along with a global score, each country that possesses a coastline will receive its own score. The OHI is designed to help leaders, businesses and the public make decisions that will improve ocean health. Greg Stone, Senior Vice-President and Chief Scientist for Oceans, Conservation International and Chair of the Council, explains the benefits and functioning of the OHI in more detail at:

Developing and promoting tools: A repository of ocean conservation activities

An important impediment for businesses to take action today is the plethora of efforts – organizations, NGOs, academic groups, etc. – that are working towards ocean conservation. This creates redundancies, and the necessity to create more interlinkages between initiatives is clear. The Council has recently decided to gather such efforts and create a repository of relevant activities, as a guide for decision-makers across different sectors.

 The next steps

Oceans are the primary life support system of Earth and the future of humanity is dependent on their sustainable use. Multistakeholder engagement is essential to ensuring that the relationship between industrial activity and the oceans can prosper – we must seek solutions that align science, policy and business. The Global Agenda Council on Oceans has created a framework and a set of priorities to further engage the business sector in thinking through solutions for sound ocean management. This constitutes the backdrop against which the Council will concentrate its efforts in the year to come.


 The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.