A view of underwater in the Pacific Ocean. Photo by: Tony Shih / CC BY-ND

MANILA — The health of the world’s oceans is under attack. About 8 million tons of plastic waste finds its way into the oceans every year.

The issue of plastics has inspired movements and has brought unprecedented attention to ocean health, not just on social media, but also at the highest levels of government. Norway, for instance, has committed 1.6 billion Norwegian Krone ($183.5 million) to address marine litter and microplastics between now and 2022. Last month, the World Bank launched a sustainable development bond to address the issue of plastic waste polluting the oceans.

At its recently concluded annual meeting, the Asian Development Bank also committed to expanding financing for healthy oceans up to $5 billion for 2019-2024 under a new action plan on healthy oceans and sustainable blue economies.

“We really clearly [need to] understand that ocean health equals human health.”

— Kristian Teleki, Sustainable Ocean Initiative director, World Resources Institute

Part of the focus is reducing land-based marine pollution, including plastics, which the bank identifies as a threat to the productivity of marine economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Two-thirds of the planet is finally getting the desperate attention it deserves,” said Kristian Teleki, director of the Sustainable Ocean Initiative at the World Resources Institute.

The bank’s commitment is one of the largest to date and adds to the growing attention the international community is paying to ocean health and the wider blue economy.

But where should these increasing amounts of resources go to? Devex spoke to Teleki for some insights.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ADB's action plan identified some of the focus areas for the bank. In your purview, where are these kinds of resources most needed?

So maybe three areas, if I may. One, without a doubt, is on pollution control that they've identified. The plastics in the ocean is not an ocean issue. It's a land-based issue. And we know what the solutions are in terms of waste management. But equally, if you work further up the plastic supply chain, it's about the design of materials. Eighty-five percent of the environmental impact of a product is boxed up at the design phase. We need to be designing these products better so that they can be captured and not leaked out of the system.

The second point is around illegal fishing — illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing [or] IUU fishing. This is an area where there's significant money that's lost as a result of illegal fishing to countries and obviously impacts on the amount of fish available within countries' waters. But also increasingly, we're seeing criminal elements associated with illegal fishing such as human, drugs, and arms trafficking. And that's not exclusive to the Pacific region; certainly, it's in each of the ocean basins. So I think that is obviously a critical element.

And then the final point is starting to think about what does the future hold and how do you then encourage and build sustainable blue economies that provide the livelihood and business opportunities, and the incentives to do such [but] not at the expense of the health of the ocean.

Because we really clearly [need to] understand that ocean health equals human health.

Has financing always been a major challenge?

I always hear from the finance community: “We've got lots of money, but we don't see the deals.” And I hear from civil society advocacy and NGO community: “We've got lots of deals, but we don't see the money.” I think we need more people that speak ocean finance and understand ocean finance in order to know where to invest. 

You have [institutions] like the ADB that are investing the money, but not necessarily expecting return. [Whereas] there's a whole host of entities within the private sector that with the right business and finance model would be able to see a return on investment.

“We need more people that speak ocean finance and understand ocean finance in order to know where to invest.”

It's about really identifying those solutions and matching up the finance with those solutions and looking at those business models. You could envision a number of different areas whereby you think about what is the return on investment.

I'll give you one example. Marine protected areas has long been used as [a] tool to protect biodiversity. That's great. However, they play another significant role. They are fish factories. By protecting those areas, we know that fish are able to reproduce. And those areas adjacent to those marine protected areas, you get more fish. We [also] know that healthy ecosystems take more carbon. [So we combat] climate change by having healthier marine systems. Thirdly, they create jobs. The tourism industry often relies on some of these areas that are marine protected areas.

So in many ways, marine protected areas are part of a country's national infrastructure and they require investment in order to keep them running because of the benefits they provide. But you can kind of see the return on investment there both for the country, but also on the private sector level as well.

How are you tying the issues facing the oceans with other development issues?

So one of the challenges I think has always been — and this is not exclusive to the ocean community — a great propensity to speak to the converted. [But] I think what's happening over the last two to three years is that the conversation has become much more diversified. So you now have interest in the human rights issues within, let's say, the seafood supply chain. A lot of companies involved in seafood have become very competent on the issues of environmental sustainability. But [they] are now looking at the social dimensions within their supply chain.

Within our partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Friends of Ocean Action, we are looking at gender parity in the ocean. June 8 this year, which is World Ocean Day, is themed gender and ocean. And if you think about this, 50% of those working in the seafood supply chain are women globally. And they are often underpaid and working in very different conditions to their male counterparts. So it's really starting to shine a light on some of these issues and the benefits of addressing them.

Do you find that the oceans are often being neglected in all of the talks and all of the funding commitment and announcements around climate change?

Around climate change, I think that the tide is changing on that as well. We're riding a wave at the moment. You have the U.N. secretary-general climate summit in New York in September this year where there'll be a significant focus on the ocean. You will have the Chile climate change summit [COP 25] that will have a focus on what people are calling the “blue COP.” So after many years, we're finally [recognizing the contribution] the ocean is making to ourselves and the planet.

“Around climate change, I think that the tide is changing on that as well.”

Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from a healthy ocean. Nearly a third of the carbon that we produce is taken up by the ocean. And about 90 to 95% of the heat we produce is taken up by the ocean. But that's a healthy ocean, and we need to continue to maintain that. 

It's probably one of our best opportunities to really buy time as far as trying to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. So certainly it is changing, but we need to maintain that momentum for sure.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.