Maritime economy: the brave blue world

With sustainable development now at the heart of global economics, Vision examines how the smart money is looking to the world’s seas as sources of hi-tech profit and growth 

Not so long ago, the oceans seemed infinite, resilient and unchanging. Fish stocks appeared limitless, coral reefs indestructible and no one paid much attention to what happened to coastlines or to the 71 per cent of the planet’s surface covered by water.

Emiratis have had a long association with the sea and depend on it for their wellbeing. Similarly, we feel the effect of climate change and pollution

Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi, UAE Minister of State and Managing Director of the Higher Committee for Hosting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai

Slowly, and then in a rush, we have come to understand that the world’s oceans are neither inexhaustible nor abundant, but vulnerable and in great danger. The world’s human population has more than tripled in 60 years and coastal cities have grown far faster than those inland to the point where one-third of the world – nearly 2.5 billion people – now lives within 60km of the sea. Meanwhile, demand for fish and other marine resources has doubled in just 40 years, and few seas have not been heavily polluted by the run-off from industrial farming, mining, power generation or the plastic and chemicals we dump in them.

Life support system

But from the realisation that if we damage our seas we fatally undermine our life support system and our economies is growing the idea of the “blue economy”: the planning of economic activity based on sea protection and sensitive, efficient use of marine resources. Running parallel to UN calls for countries to adopt a “green economy” by assigning value to nature, this new model for economic development is gathering pace backed by UN bodies and with increasing numbers of countries persuaded to rethink how they use the seas in order to profit from them.

“The concept of the blue-green economy has emerged as a shift from traditional thinking about environmental protection and management being separate from economic development to the now recognised fact that future development is inextricably linked with environmental and social considerations,” says Mitrasen Bhikajee, Director of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), part of Unesco.

Research by the IOC and the UN Environment Programme suggests a clear link between poverty eradication and better protection and restoration of the seas. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last year, the US Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator, Jane Lubchenco, estimated that conserving and rebuilding US fish populations to sustainable levels could generate an additional US$31bn a year in sales, an extra 500,000 jobs and would increase the money fishermen receive.

One study has estimated that the oceanic potential of Indonesia, with 18,000 islands and a coastline of more than 34,000 miles, could reach US$1.2tn a year. “If Indonesia could fully optimise its maritime potential, its waters could mitigate the impacts of climate change by absorbing around 80 per cent of global over-heating and provide a source of alternative energy,” said Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister, Sharif Cicip Sutardjo, at the Rio conference on sustainable development in June.

Climate change

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have agreed to protect the vast coral ecosystem they share. The Coral Triangle Initiative seeks to manage fishing better, protect coastlines and species and improve communities’ resiliency in dealing with climate change.

China, which has three million sq km of offshore waters and 20,000 miles of coastline, plans to invest more than US$100bn in the next five years to develop hi-tech industries such as marine chemistry, biomedicine, ocean power, seawater use, ocean engineering and construction. By 2016, Qingdao’s Blue Economic Zone should cover 14 sq km and include a 400-hectare area for marine industry research and 300 hectares for alternative-energy and new-materials research. There is expected to be more than 10,000 tech companies, creating 200,000 jobs.

“The oceans are strategically important to China,” says Michael O’Toole of the Irish Marine Institute. “Its future development potential lies in the oceans, which if sustainably developed will help solve employment problems and address the issue of raw material shortages.”

The blue economy is being led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation and came to the fore at the Rio+20 conference of more than 190 countries in June and the World Expo at Yeosu in South Korea, where the UAE’s exhibition, with its theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast”, attracted two million people. “Emiratis have had a long association with the sea and still depend on it for their wellbeing,” said Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi, UAE Minister of State and Managing Director of the Higher Committee for Hosting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

“We live in a connected world and our actions affecting coastal habitats and marine life impact on others as much as ourselves. Similarly, we feel the effect of global issues such as climate change and marine pollution.

“We are keen to make our own contribution to the analysis of key theme issues, such as fisheries management, the blue economy, species conservation, environmental protection and reduction of marine pollution. These are all real issues that we cannot solve by ourselves, even within our own borders, but we can make a difference,” she said.

Maritime economy

In Europe, the blue economy has the potential to lift countries out of recession. “The maritime economy in Europe accounts for a production value of some €450bn,” says Maria Damanaki, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “This could be higher if marine resources were exploited sustainably. If protected and well managed, the seas can unlock smart growth; they can create high-value jobs and they can contribute to the continent’s economic recovery.”

“Rio was the trigger point. There was an understanding that oceans had not been taken into account in the same ways that land resources had. The idea of better protecting them and benefiting from them more sustainably is developing.” says Bhikajee.

There is now hope that more sustainable development of the seas will start to begin While they may not be legally binding, seven of the IOC’s 10 proposals were accepted at Rio+20. “The ocean is the cornerstone of our life support system. It provides benefits to sectors such as fisheries, energy, tourism, transport and shipping, as well as ‘non-market’ benefits such as climate regulation, carbon sequestration, habitat and biodiversity. We ignore it at our peril,” Bhikajee adds.