A new ocean agenda is taking shape. New waves of investment in the “blue economy” are rising. Ambitious national strategies are encouraging the development of industries such as bio-prospecting, sustainable aquaculture, tourism and deep-sea mining. The OECD estimates that the ocean economy already accounts for 2.5% of global GDP; by 2030 it is projected to double in size to $3trn. New technologies and innovative partnerships suggest that an era of genuinely blue—or sustainable—growth is just around the corner. However, even the most thoughtful and sophisticated national blue-economy plans typically prioritise economic growth over conservation and restoration. The next wave of ocean industrialisation is upon us, yet our understanding of the costs and benefits remains inadequate.
We are facing a perfect storm. On the one hand government and industry increasingly see the ocean as an important source of economic growth; on the other, they are tasked with countering the existential threat the ocean faces due to these (and other, land-based) activities. Businesses want to invest, but are unsure about the risks due to ocean degradation and associated regulation. This dichotomy is evident in two of the most pressing issues facing the ocean: overfishing (and the related issues of fishing subsidies and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing), and the question of how to manage plastic pollution (a complex land-based issue, but one that has a profound effect on the ocean). A more forthright discussion about these and other trade-offs is an essential part of the new ocean agenda.
The opportunities for this new agenda to guide development that respects—and even restores—ocean health are enormous, as are the opportunities for creating jobs, income and growth. Yet the risks are equally great—to the ocean, to economies and to our own well-being.