The World Bank campaign to save our fish

The World Bank is aiming to put an end to over-exploitation of our seas. James McKeigue asks whether it can succeed.

What's happened?

The World Bank has launched a campaign to save the oceans. Speaking at the inaugural World Oceans Summit in Singapore last week, World Bank chief Robert Zoellick called for £1.5bn of funding from non-governmental organisations, governments and the private sector.

It will fund a five-year programme that will aim to rebuild the world's fish stocks and increase protected zones to 5% of the seas from the present 2%. The bank has already secured the support of some conservation groups and corporations and begun talks with Australia, Monaco, New Zealand and Norway.

Why is the World Bank getting involved in an environmental project?

Oceans are a massive economic resource. Fish is the world's most-traded food stock and the annual catch is worth around $85bn. The World Bank reckons that 85% of fisheries are now being over-exploited, with stocks falling. Its solution would involve working out a legal rights system to ensure greater control over who fishes where.

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The seas are also home to huge deposits of oil and gas, minerals, most of the planet's oxygen, vital trade routes and possibly future sources of renewable energy. In the corporate speak that dominated much of the conference, the plan is: "to create market structures that recognise the natural capital' of the oceans and encourage stakeholders to manage the asset more productively".

Are we reaching peak fish'?

The biggest challenge is certainly over-fishing. Last year, British scientists found that Britain's fish stock fell by 94% over the last 118 years. Globally, the UN says that a third of all fish stocks have fallen by 90%. In the worst affected areas, total catches are often less than in the era of sailboats. Some scientists claim that if current trends continue, all commercial fisheries will collapse by 2050.

Fishing is also losing money and being propped up by a series of subsidies, such as tax-free trawler fuel. The World Bank estimates that global fisheries are running at a net economic loss of £3bn per year. It claims that with more control, the same fisheries could turn a £20bn profit.

Are fishermen on board?

No. The trouble is, fishermen are notoriously difficult to control. A number of regulations already control fishing, but they have had little effect. One problem is black fish' unregistered catches. It's believed that two-thirds of North Atlantic cod catches go unreported. Another problem is "high grading", where trawlers fill up with low-value fish at the start of a trip, but throw the dead fish back into the sea if they catch a more valuable species later in the voyage.

Unlike other areas of agriculture, such as arable farming, the lack of property rights and ownership mean fishermen pay scant regard to the future. Indiscriminate fishing with dynamite or massive nets means that fishermen often cause much damage. Trawlers jettison the wrong type of dead fish, causing massive problems to the supporting ecosystem.

Even when fishermen play by the rules, often they don't work. In Europe, fishing quotas are set by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Since 1983, it has tried to reduce over-fishing by limiting fleet numbers. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked and the EU estimates that 90% of its fish stocks are over-exploited.

Bad as the CFP is, at least Europe has a policy. In Africa there is little political will, or naval capability, to enforce something similar. European, Russian and Chinese fleets battle with the locals for Africa's fish and some catches are starting to fall.

Is there more at stake than fish?

Yes. Covering 70% of the world's surface, the sea is also full of oil, gas and minerals. At first, oil and gas companies focused on easy' targets in shallow water, but in the last decade higher oil prices have encouraged more complex operations further out to sea. Offshore now contributes 30% of the global total oil production and 25% of natural gas output. That trend will rise while the vast majority of new discoveries are likely to be found at sea.

High commodity prices have also increased the popularity of deep-sea mining. Projects are thin on the ground Nautilus Minerals recently started the first private-sector underwater mining project off the coast of Papua New Guinea but many nations have sponsored exploration efforts in the last ten years. Japan recently found 100 billion tonnes of the rare earths used in the manufacture of electronics and chemicals.

There are also concerns that renewable energy could damage the oceans. Some environmentalists worry that plans to create biofuels from algae or harness the power of waves or the tides will disrupt underwater ecosystems.

Will the World Bank's plan work?

Some aspects of the plan, such as increasing the no take' zones protected fishing-free parts of the seas should be possible. Several governments have expressed an interest for example, Australia has drawn up a draft plan for a marine reserve covering nearly one million square kilometres. That's as big as the landmass of America and Canada combined.

More should be possible as, at present, only 2% of the sea is protected compared to 12% onshore. Yet, even if more reserves are created, it might not be enough. As the world gets increasingly desperate for key commodities and energy, humans are likely to place even more demand on the sea.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.