Out of the blue – the marine economy

By Andy Steven December 1st, 2016

The marine economy is growing at break-neck speed. How we use our oceans needs clever planning and innovative thinking, all based on sound science.
The ocean stretching to the horizon

The world’s oceans represent a wealth of opportunities, the question is: How to manage the growth of the blue economies. Image: Chris Harber/Flickr

My recent trip to the small island republics of Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean convinced me of how much these two countries clearly see their future prosperity being dependent on wise use of their coastal and marine assets.

With large exclusive economic zones, both countries have created national policies and government ministries to develop and manage the growth of their ‘blue economies’.

Former president of the Republic of Seychelles James Alix Michel articulates in his book Rethinking the Oceans; Towards the Blue Economy the importance of the blue economy to the many small island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and in the Caribbean—nations which are especially vulnerable to the realities of a changing climate and sweeping global changes.

Michel outlines a vision for small island nations which is based on intelligent growth, social inclusion and empowerment; and a plan that includes diversifying the economy beyond traditional sectors, by creating high-value jobs that use the ocean sustainably, increasing marine food supplies and managing and protecting the marine environment in a sustainable and responsible manner for the benefit of present and future generations.

What is the blue economy?

While there are some differences in language—blue economy/growth, ocean economy/enterprise—that reflect varying emphasis and definition among nations and organisations, they all emphasise the need for: marine-based economic development that leads to improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

This marine-based economic development includes:

  • exploring and developing ocean resources
  • using ocean and coastal space
  • protecting the ocean environment
  • using ocean products as a main input
  • providing goods and services to support ocean activities.

It incorporates both traditional maritime industries (e.g. fisheries, coastal tourism, energy and mineral production, boat building, shipping and ports activity) and new and developing industries such as aquaculture; marine renewable energy technologies for wind, wave and tidal energy; bio-products (pharmaceutical and agrichemicals), ‘blue carbon’ (carbon storage in mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh) and desalination.

Impressive numbers

Globally, the figures for the blue economy are impressive and are supported by recent country reports in Europe, the USA, China, Africa and for small island developing states. Funding opportunities are also being developed.

breaking wave at sunset

The blue economy includes developing industries such as marine renewable energy (MRE) technologies for wind, wave and tidal energy.

The OECD reports that the current ocean economy is now conservatively valued at USD 1.5 trillion (2.5% of world gross value added) and employs 31 million people. By 2030 it is estimated to increase to approximately USD 3 trillion, driven by strong growth in aquaculture (8.5% per annum currently), offshore wind, fish processing, and shipbuilding and repair.

To realise the potential of the blue economy, a sound foundation in science, technology and innovation is needed to properly understand, plan and manage the sustainable allocation and harvesting of resources; the development of new products such as bio-, nutri-, pharma- and cosmo-ceuticals; and the development of emerging technologies such as marine renewable energies (wave, tidal, offshore wind).

Australia’s blue economy

With the 3rd largest exclusive economic zone in the world, a zone that spans 3 oceans, Australia is a marine nation, and has made significant efforts, nationally and regionally, to plan and promote the development of a blue economy.

In 2011–12, marine industries contributed $47 billion to the Australian economy and, with increases in offshore oil and gas production, marine tourism, maritime trade, ship building, aquaculture and biotechnology, this figure is projected to grow to $100 billion by 2025.

close up of fish in net

The Blue Economy includes managing the ocean’s resources sustainably.

This rate of growth—7.5% per annum—far outstrips the projected 2.5% growth rate of Australia’s GDP. The current projected value does not include the estimated $25 billion per annum worth of benefits Australia gets from ecosystem services provided by its oceans, such as carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, erosion prevention and cultural heritage.

To realise this potential, the 2013 position paper Marine Nation 2025: Marine Science to Support Australia’ s Blue Economy recommended the creation of a decadal plan to focus investment on the biggest development and sustainability challenges facing Australia’ s marine estate:

  • sovereignty, security, natural hazards
  • energy security
  • food security
  • biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health
  • a changing climate,
  • optimal resource allocation.

The priority science needed to tackle these challenges was articulated in Australia’s National Marine Science Plan 2015–2015 which recommended an explicit focus on the blue economy throughout the marine science system. The plan also articulated the need for national coordinated studies to better understand our marine estate; continued development and support for marine observing and modelling infrastructure; and development of marine science training programs that will facilitate wise decisions by policymakers and the marine industry.

To realise the promise of a blue economy, core Australian expertise will be required at home and abroad in:

  • marine spatial planning
  • ecosystem-based fisheries management
  • aquaculture
  • biotechnology
  • marine ecosystem management and restoration
  • socioecological modelling in order.

Regionally, the Australian Government has been a strong supporter of the blue economy though forums such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Australia has recently funded the innovationXchange Blue Economy Challenge, with 10 winners from countries such as Madagascar and Indonesia, and covering projects such as insect meal protein, seaweed farming by women, sea-cucumber ranching, sustainable aqua-feeds and new vaccines for fish.

Blue carbon, blue tech

The importance of blue carbon is also recognised as the Australian Government, building upon the findings and expertise of the CSIRO Coastal Carbon Cluster, considers adopting activities recognised as affecting mangroves saltmarsh and seagrass storage of carbon in the national inventory.

Internationally, the Australian Government has initiated the International Blue Carbon Partnership as a forum for countries and organisations to benefit from the experience and expertise of the global community and to develop an enabling environment for high quality, locally relevant approaches to protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems.

Sustained investment in science and innovation is fundamental to the success of emerging blue technologies.

For example, investment in marine biotechnology research will be essential for developing new foods, pharmaceuticals, bioenergy, cosmetics and other products that by 2022 are expected to have a global market value of USD 5.9 billion.

Importantly, these products will allow flow-on benefits that also help alleviate poverty by giving coastal communities alternative ways of using their natural capital to generate income. Many of these alternatives promise to offer high value products that will generate greater incomes that encourage more sustainable practices.

Clever planning

Underpinning all this must be clever planning that acknowledges that some uses of the ocean are comfortable bedfellows, while others will need to be segregated.

The Blue Economy challenge is combining and protecting the mixed uses of the ocean environment, including tourism.

The Blue Economy challenge is combining and protecting the mixed uses of the ocean environment, including tourism.

We need to think about how to use the sea—and the land that abuts it—in ways that allow a broad range of sustainable activities. This will likely mean innovative thinking—for example, can we combine mariculture with renewable energy, or tourism with conservation?—and judicious use of the marine spatial planning toolbox.

We need to understand the ecosystems themselves, but also the social and economic systems, and how they all interact.

By doing so, we can achieve a sustainable blue economy that benefits us all.


Dr Andy Steven is the Research Program Director of Coastal Development and Management at CSIRO, a member of the Partnerships for Observations of the Global Ocean Industry Liaison Committee and Co-Chair of the GEO Oceans and Society Blue Planet Initiative.

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