The Blue Economy
The ocean has always been an essential part of life on this blue planet. Oceans cover over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the world’s water. We rely on its resources to sustain and improve our lives.
The World Bank created a definition for this “blue economy” that encompasses “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”
Economic activities associated with the ocean include traditional sectors such as commercial fishing, coastal tourism and maritime transport to support global commerce. Increasingly, the ocean has been tapped for energy sources and generation of off-shore renewable energies like wind and tidal energy. Marine life is explored for applications to pharmaceuticals, desalination offers an opportunity to meet demand for freshwater, and the ocean can be used for carbon sequestration to mitigate climate impacts.
Vital to Livelihoods and Growth
In one form or another, trade in ocean resources contributes between $3-6 trillion to global GDP, supporting the livelihoods of over 3 billion people on the planet.
Recognizing the importance of measuring the economic impact of the ocean, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) in 2019 to develop prototype statistics to measure the ocean’s contribution to the U.S. economy. From aquaculture to ship building, offshore mining and power generation, marine-related activities contributed some $373 billion to U.S. GDP in 2018.
Tourism and recreation generated the most, bringing in just shy of $143 billion in wages, profits, and tax revenue for coastal communities in the U.S. in 2018. The new data also showed that between 2014 and 2018, the American blue economy grew faster than the overall U.S. economy.
Deeper Dive into the Ocean Economy
Fisheries and Aquaculture
The ocean delivers a vital and primary source of protein in the diets of over 3 billion people. Marine fisheries employ over 200 million people either directly or indirectly. Expanded global availability of refrigerated storage and transportation has extended access to all kinds of fresh fish.
Overfishing, exacerbated by heavy government subsidies, has become a key concern, putting nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are at risk. Both the UN and the WTO have made removing these subsidies a priority to help protect vulnerable coastal communities who rely on fish for their own consumption and the local economy.
One-half of all fish we eat is farmed rather than captured. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world. China produces a huge amount of the world’s farmed fish and is the top producer by value of carp, tilapia, catfish, shrimp, oysters and many other types. Norway leads in salmon, trout and smelt with Chile a close second.
Tourism has long been vital to many coastal economies. Overall, tourism employs 1 out of every 11 people around the world. It is fast becoming one of the world’s biggest industries, making up 10 percent of global GDP. International tourism is an invisible export. Visitors spend money on transportation, housing and entertainment using income earned in their home country.
From scuba diving and surfing to cruises and all-inclusive beach resorts, coastal tourism comes in many flavors. It is particularly important for less developed nations, as it creates jobs, promotes economic growth, and brings in money that is spent in local businesses like restaurants, shops, and tour services.
Tourism is the economic lifeblood of many Least Developed Countries and small island developing states such as those in the Caribbean and southeast Asia that collectively host 41 million visitors visit every year. These states are focused on delivering services to bring in more tourists while preserving the natural beauty and resources that attract visitors to their islands.
Over 80 percent of goods traded internationally such as raw materials, food, consumer goods, and energy products were transported by sea in 2015. Despite reaching a record high of 11 billion tonnes shipped that year, world maritime trade growth decelerated to 2.7 percent in 2018, below the historical average of 3.0, reflecting a range of risks that intensified at the time including global trade tensions, protectionism, and the ‘Brexit’ decision.
Issues surrounding maritime transport are often intertwined with other global economic, environmental and political trends. Security conflicts occur over country ownership of key shipping routes and global discussions are active over the environmental impacts of fuel-guzzling container ships.
The world’s ports can often act as a weather vane for the economy as a whole. Dock workers feel the effects of tariffs, disasters and other trade policy changes before farmers, truckers, distributors and retailers do. Effects of the recent U.S.-China trade war and of the COVID-19 pandemic were experienced by dockers who saw the vast reductions in imports before the economic effects rippled throughout the economy.
As supply chains continue to shift and we watch for reshoring, the maritime transport sector may start to look different over the next few years, but will undoubtedly remain an essential part of the global economy.
Preserving Our Oceans
Sustainability is a key aspect of the blue economy. Although there is an emphasis on environmental stewardship and protection in all parts of the economy, nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to our oceans, a finite and critical resource.
Overfishing or pollution could deplete fish stocks and cause a severe food crisis. Environmental degradation caused by the tourism industry could ruin the economies of coastal communities. Waste and pollution from shipping could cause accumulated damage to our air and water.
According to Conservation International eight million metric tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. At this rate, by 2050, plastic would outweigh fish in the ocean. Other concerns cited include the runoff of harmful nutrients from agriculture into the ocean, warming temperatures that are bleaching and destroying coral reefs, and even noise pollution from shipping that is killing creatures such as jellyfish.
International governmental cooperation and advances in technology can combat these problems. Conservation and sustainable use form one of the five pillars used by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as part of their Ocean’s Economy and Trade Strategy project. This effort aims to mitigate damage while maintaining the important economic benefits of the blue economy that supports billions of people.
It seems no aspect of economic life has been spared disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, including many parts of the blue economy and related livelihoods. UNCTAD released a report to chart the waters of re-opening the blue economy to become more resilient post-pandemic. It proposes enhanced coordination and communication between fisheries and distributors to cut down on food waste, exercising restraint in sanitary protectionism, and closely monitoring shipping to prevent bottlenecks and delays. UNCTAD also suggests removing fishing subsidies to tackle wasteful overfishing; developing a “2.0 approach” to coastal tourism that showcases local sustainability efforts; and digitizing maritime trade procedures to achieve efficiencies and reduce CO2 emissions.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the world’s oceans, so embracing science and discovery will play an important role as we continue to draw on its precious resources and develop new markets. Untapped economic potential includes the capture of carbon, supporting the existence of a rich oceanic biodiversity, waste disposal, and the protection of coasts.
The blue economy is as diverse as its land-based counterpart – perhaps even more so. Sustainability will continue to be extremely important both for its own sake and for the preservation of the resources we rely on every day. With careful stewardship the blue economy can continue to support billions of people and enrich all of our lives.
Alice Calder received her MA in Applied Economics at GMU. Originally from the UK, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Political Economy from the University of Exeter, living and working internationally sparked her interest in trade issues as well as the intersection of economics and culture.