The voice of the sea speaks to the soul of geopolitics, but the oceans are in the worst condition they have ever been. Plastic pollution is coated on the ocean-floor, fishing industries are draining the marine resources while creating tremendous waste in the process. Our oceans contain 99 per cent of the living space on the planet, and our atmosphere and the climate rely on them. So, we need to rethink the way we interact with the oceans, and the Blue Economy provides a roadmap to synchronise economic growth with sustainable ecosystems. Let’s dive into it.

Turning to the oceans

We don’t think nearly enough about the oceans, but our wellbeing is intrinsically tied to the seas. Three-quarters of the world’s mega-cities are located by the sea, and the oceans provide coastal communities with food and minerals while generating oxygen and absorbing greenhouse emissions. The oceans also mitigate the impact of climate change; they determine weather patterns and temperatures and serve as highways for seaborne trade. Roughly 90 per cent of the volume of the world trade is carried by sea, and the international supply chains that link ports and communities are essential for those who seek to gain access to global markets.

However, our relationship with the oceans, and how people exploit its resources, is evolving in significant ways. As the human population continues to increase, our terrestrial reserves will come under stress, and we will increasingly turn to the oceans as a source of protein, energy, as well as non-market goods and services. Thanks to technological improvements in advanced materials, subsea engineering, robotics, autonomous systems, AI, and nanotechnology – we will be able to extract more resources from the oceans. Harnessing this maritime potential will create jobs in tourism, energy production, aquaculture, bioprospecting, biotechnology, and so on. While in 2010, the global ocean economy was valued at 1.5 trillion USD, by 2030, it will surpass 3 trillion USD. Yet, as much as the oceans are vital for life on Earth, they are not limitless.

Increased human activity in the oceans will inevitably affect the environments, and oceans that are not healthy will not be able to support economic growth. So, if the transition towards an ocean economy is not regulated correctly, we risk running out of marine resources in the future, and while doing so, we risk economic poverty. What’s more is that in the coming decades, we will see increasing challenges to the sustainable use of marine resources because of hazards such as climate change, rising sea levels, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and rising temperatures. Oceans-related sectors are going to be affected either directly or indirectly, and these include fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, but also maritime infrastructure, which will carry far-reaching consequences for international shipping. So, the changing oceans will affect nearly all nations, small and big.

That’s why in November 2018, political leaders and scientists across the globe gathered in Nairobi during the first conference on the Blue Economy to set out the principles for the future of the ocean economy. Two points can be taken from the conference. First, the only way to ensure a prosperous ocean economy is by promoting sustainability in addition to economic growth. For this, international platforms must be set up, and mechanisms must be developed to conserve and protect the ocean resources and marine ecosystems. At the same time, maritime regulations must be strengthened, and new regimes on science and technology must be created. Basically, to maintain a prosperous ocean economy, the ecosystem must remain healthy.

The second point of the Blue Economy is that the sustainable management of ocean resources will mandate collaboration across nations as well as public private sectors on a scale that has not been previously achieved. Since about 3 billion people around the world rely on marine biodiversity for their livelihood, the only way to ensure a sustainable ocean economy is by reaching an international consensus. So, at its core, the Blue Economy seeks to establish an international platform with cooperative regimes to protect the environment so that the oceans remain a source of food, jobs, and stability for future generations.

Nurturing an economy

Technically, the Blue Economy holds the same principles and goals as the Green Economy, which seeks to reduce environmental risk. It’s a commendable plan, but in practice, the Green Economy remains widely wasteful because many of the industries are well-entrenched in their way of doing business. It’s difficult to implement and enforce revolutionary change across nations, and across public and private sectors.

The Blue Economy, however, provides a new kind of economy that can be appropriately designed from the ground up. Currently, the ocean economy employs about 1 per cent of the global workforce and contributes about 2.5 per cent of gross value added to the global economy. In the coming decades, these numbers will continue to grow, which means that the ocean economy is still in its cradle. So, while introducing sustainability in existing industries is difficult, it is much easier to introduce such policies in an economy that is just in its beginnings.

For every nation, the Blue Economy formula is likely to be different, depending on national circumstances, maritime zones, existing economic activities, and issues related to social and cultural norms. For instance, the needs of a high-income country such as Norway, which already has highly advanced hydrocarbon extracting ocean economy, is widely different from Bangladesh, a low-income country where local communities rely on the ocean for their day-to-day sustenance. Not to mention the specific needs of small islands nations, which often lack the capacities to efficiently exploit their disproportionally large exclusive economic zones.

Each country will thus need to draft its vision for a sustainable ocean economy, but in each case, the policy has to be low-carbon, efficient, and clean. This is not easy but having international frameworks and guidelines that allow for the sharing of best practices and expertise across nations certainly makes reforms more accessible for smaller and underdeveloped nations. Data generation and data sharing using advanced AI and big data mining is, therefore, a big part of the Blue Economy.

Have a look at this map; it shows the collective human impact on marine ecosystems. The data was collected over five years. Nearly 66 per cent of the oceans and 77 per cent of national jurisdictions show increased human impact. Some places are more affected than others; America’s East Coast is in worse condition than the West Coast. Sometimes the affected areas are spread along the artificial borders of the exclusive economic zones. Poor planning in Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone has made its waters far more polluted than in the Maldives.

Meanwhile, the waters of the Federated States of Micronesia are some of the least affected thanks to the strict localised environmental policies. However, immediately beyond their exclusive economic zone, the pollution kicks in. This form of ecological policymaking may work on paper, but in practice – the oceans are fluid meta-ecosystems, meaning any effects on one ecosystem will cascade into other ecosystems across the oceans. So, for a sustainable ocean economy, there needs to be an international consensus. Individual or local policies will not work.

Challenges ahead

To contextualise the trials that lie ahead, take for instance the following: the fishing industry employs over 350 million jobs worldwide, while a third of crude oil production comes from offshore fields, and aquaculture is the fastest-growing food sector. These three industries hold conflicting interests, but the dogma of the Blue Economy is to balance the interests in a manner that allows sustainable and equitable growth.

There are many aspects of the Blue Economy, but a series of challenges also limit the concept. For much of human history, aquatic ecosystems have been treated as limitless resources and largely cost-free repositories of waste. The World Bank identifies three challenges that restrict the development of a Blue Economy. The first is the economic trend that rapidly degrades ocean resources, such as overfishing, pollution, unfair trade, physical destruction, etc. The second is the lack of investment in human capital. Without further funding, employment and development in innovative sectors will remain stagnant, which will delay further technological breakthrough necessary for a Blue Economy. The final risk is the inadequate care for marine resources and ecosystem services of the oceans. This is the result of poorly regulated activities that stem from ineffective institutions and insufficient economic incentives.

Only by addressing these risks can nations around the world truly tap into the economic wealth offered by the oceans. Perhaps none said it better than French explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau; “For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realise that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”

Gurpreet S. Goraya & Shirvan Neftchi

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  1. Martin Damboldt via Pexels
  2. Quang Nguyen Vinh via Pexels
  3. Artem Beliaikin via Pexels


· The Blue Economy 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs by Gunter Pauli (Paradigm Publications, 2010)

· The Blue Economy 3.0: The marriage of science, innovation and entrepreneurship creates a new business model that transforms society by Gunter Pauli (Xlibris Corporation, 2017)

· UN Report on Sustainable Development (OECD, 2016)

· The Economist (EIU, 2015)

· Safeguarding the ocean of life (WWF)

· Integrated ocean management can accelerate blue growth (The Economist Group, May 2020)

· The blue economy: Growth, opportunity and a sustainable ocean economy (World Ocean Summit, 2015)

· Ensuring survival: Oceans, climate and security by Janot Mendler de Suarez, Biliana Cicin-Sain, Kateryna Wowk, Rolph Payet, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (Ocean & Coastal Management, 2014)

· Application of the coastal ecosystem complex concept toward integrated management for sustainable coastal fisheries under oligotrophication by Hori Masakazu, Hamaoka Hideki, Hirota Masahito, Lagarde Franck, Vaz Sandrine, Hamaguchi Masami, Hori Juri, Makino Mitsutaku (Fisheries Science)

· The Ocean Economy in 2030 (OECD, 2014)


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