THE head of the World Bank has warned oceans are being hurt by overfishing, pollution and climate change and called on the Australian government to join a $US1.5 billion ($1.4 billion) "save our seas" plan to improve fish stocks and boost the global economy.
Describing oceans as the world's lifeblood, World Bank president Robert Zoellick said talks had begun with Australia, Monaco, New Zealand and Norway on joining a coalition that would include governments, scientists, civil society and the private sector.
He said 1 billion people in developing countries relied on seafood for protein and more than 500 million depended on fishing as a livelihood. In Pacific Island countries, fish was 80 per cent of total exports. For the tiny country of Kiribati, it was 53 per cent of gross domestic product.
Mr Zoellick said oceans were home to a "blue economy" and their degradation disproportionately affected the poor.
"At a time when the world is looking for sources of growth, there is huge potential for "blue growth" wisely preserving and investing in the value of ocean ecosystems to fight poverty. But oceans aren't living up to their potential," he said in notes released ahead of a speech at a World Oceans Summit in Singapore. "Fish stocks are crashing through exploitation. Rising pollution is flowing into the oceans from land, air and rivers, choking plant and animal life.
"Ocean habitats are disappearing, some with alarming rapidity, as coastal cities bloom. A changing climate has brought warmer oceans, higher sea levels and ocean acidification."
Mr Zoellick said a global partnership for oceans would first aim to raise $US300 million to help governments create incentives for investment in ocean protection.
It would then aim to spend $US1.2 billion over five years to rebuild at least half the world's fish stocks (85 per cent of fisheries are depleted or worse), reverse the fortunes of global fisheries (running at a net annual loss of about $US5 billion) and more than double the amount of protected ocean.
The World Bank has approached federal government agency AusAID about being involved. The speech came as more than 300 scientists urged the government to create the world's biggest "no-take" marine reserve in the Coral Sea. Environment Minister Tony Burke in November released a draft plan to create a marine reserve covering nearly 1 million square kilometres. About half would be a no-take reserve and half would be open for restricted recreational and charter fishing. The commercial fishing industry has criticised the plan and called for government compensation.
A statement signed by scientists from 21 countries this week said the plan was a good start, but missed an opportunity for Australia to show global leadership by making the whole area no-take.
Mr Burke yesterday said Australia was committed to long-term conservation of marine ecosystems and ocean biodiversity. "Any initiatives and discussions that can improve the global health of our oceans are a good thing," he said.
The World Bank proposal is one of several aimed at reducing damage to the marine environment released ahead of the June "Rio 20" United Nations sustainable development conference in Brazil, which will include a focus on the "blue economy".
South Pacific islands are linking marine resources to better manage 10 per cent of the world's oceans.