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The Blue Economy and Ocean Health: Part 2 - Blue Economy and Decision-Support Frameworks

This article is a second part in a four-part blog series discussing Blue Economy for ocean management.

There are big plans for the oceans: more fishing, faster and bigger ships, more aquaculture, more tourism, giant ports, huge offshore wind farms, deep sea mining, and even bioprospecting. At the same time, the recognition is growing that we must achieve a sustainable and long-term balance among all these benefits: is that even imaginably possible?

First, to most effectively manage oceans, we need to understand them much better than we do now, which remains a major challenge as there still is so much we don’t know, such as the potential impacts of deep seabed mining on highly migratory fisheries like tuna. Moreover, we need to shift from the prevailing compartmentalized, single-sector economic and management approaches, which promote little collaboration across different entities, toward multi-sector, comprehensive systems. Within this complexity, a Blue Economy approach may provide incentives for establishing and supporting better integrated collaboration and linkages between and across sectors, even among those with competing interests.

Victoria Harbor is a huge export hub for China and barges load container ships around the clock.

Multi-Sector Collaboration

The leadership of the public sector in fostering sustainable ocean development through adequate regulatory frameworks and institutional arrangements is an essential driver in Blue Economy efforts. This includes supporting scientific and economic research and establishing effective regulatory policy frameworks that are developed in collaboration with stakeholders as well as improving law enforcement, setting clear management targets and providing adequate incentives and financing opportunities, e.g., financing for performance-based conservation.

Identifying emerging opportunities in the diversifying ocean economy will be one of the key aspects of private sector involvement in Blue Economy transition. For instance, half of the fish we eat today has been farmed and the proportion is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2030. It has already been shown that supplying this fish sustainably provides opportunities to producers. In Norway, for instance, large-scale fish farming is among the most sustainable in the world, not only providing a great source of food but also generating economic prosperity. Sustainable tourism is another growing sector that can boost local economies, particularly in developing economies threatened by the high demand of extractive resources. Sharks are worth more alive than dead, as they generate over $300 million annually from ecotourism revenues worldwide.

Many businesses are also investing in environmentally-friendly methods and technologies. For example, companies in the fisheries sector are increasingly certifying their products (e.g., Marine Stewardship Council, Friends of the Sea), and the global cargo industry has committed to improve the environmental performance of their ongoing fleets. Moreover, emerging ocean industries, such as marine renewable energy (e.g., wave, wind, tidal, thermal, salinity gradients) and bioprospecting as well as habitat protection and restoration, will bring new opportunities to the ocean economy.

Both the public and private sectors will play an essential role in the transformation to sustainable Blue Economy. Public-private partnerships (PPPs), agreements between public agencies and private sector entities, harness the strengths of each sector — such as the public sector’s ability to provide financial capital, local knowledge and political support, and the private sector’s expertise in commerce, management and innovation— making them an effective tool in supporting Blue Economy development efforts. Indeed, PPPs have successfully delivered projects to improve environmental performance and capacity in health care, transportation, environment and energy sectors.

Seaweed farm at dawn, Kutuh, Bali, Indonesia.

Integrated long-term solutions

For too long, marine management efforts have focused on specific ocean uses and have had limited coordination among managing entities, leading to siloed approaches with little consideration for the potential of conflict across sectors. For instance, traditional coastal activities such as tourism and fisheries and relatively new sectors like offshore renewable energy and aquaculture often compete for the same space, leading to negative interactions between different users. These narrow approaches are now widely seen as ineffective and, consequently, best practice in marine management is shifting from single-sector thinking toward coupled socio-ecological systems, from individual species to ecosystems, and from short-term to long-term perspectives. To be truly integrated, potential solutions will also need to recognize that humans are integral parts of ecosystems, and explicitly define the nexus between ocean health and human well-being.

Promoting integrated marine management may be straightforward in theory but it is highly complex in practice. A few key concepts, approaches and tools have emerged to help guide and structure the process:

Ecosystem-based Management (EBM) is an approach that acknowledges the importance of healthy and functional ecosystems in maintaining essential ecosystem services and takes into account an array of impacts and interactions in an ecosystem —including humans. EBM is also often associated with concepts such as adaptive and integrated management, stakeholder involvement, cross-sectoral collaboration and multi-scale processes. But, because there are such wide variations in the EBM definition, the implementation of EBM takes many different forms that emphasize different factors, such as the relative degree to which ecological, governance and socio-economic aspects should be incorporated into management practices and principles, and what other activities (e.g. Marine Spatial Planning, Marine Protected Areas) can support its implementation. Consequently, EBM can be tailored to support a variety of objectives, such as Blue Economy development efforts, by providing an operational framework that facilitates planning and scaling of ocean-related activities.

Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), also know as Ocean Use Planning, is an approach that aims at allocating different human activities within specified marine areas in different scales and, by doing so, balancing ecological, economic, social and political interests and minimizing the conflict between different activities. MSP is an important instrument in managing entire marine areas within countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), at the borders between EEZs as well as offshore. Today MSP is regulatory under national law in a number of countries including China, Belgium, the UK and the US.

Besides being an important instrument in planning and scaling of economic activities, MSP is also used to deliver EBM objectives. Indeed, MSP is often considered a practical strategy to implement the EBM approach to the conservation and management of marine resources making it an important tool in supporting Blue Economy efforts as well. Moreover, as the expansion of many ocean-related economic activities (e.g., aquaculture, shipping) will likely lead to increased conflict potential between sectors, by helping to balance different ocean uses, MSP can reduce negative interactions and deliver substantial ecological, economic and social benefits.

Ocean Health Index (OHI) is the first ever framework that assesses the health of the ocean by evaluating how successfully and sustainably humans are obtaining the range of benefits that the ocean can deliver. OHI measures and tracks the status, trends, pressures (negative influences) and resilience (positive influences) of the full suite of ocean benefits, ranging from food provision, natural products and livelihoods through coastal protection, biodiversity and sense of place. An adaptable framework and process enables assessments to be done at multiple scales for a variety of different applications.

In the context of Blue Economy, OHI assessments provide a quantitative initial baseline measure of conditions against which to evaluate the success of future actions. OHI outputs can be used in determining the most cost-effective management interventions or identifying sectors that can be further developed. For instance, in 2015, the global OHI mariculture sub-goal score was 24/100 indicating that most regions are not sustainably producing the amounts of farmed fish and seafood that they potentially could.

In addition to improving data collection and disseminating such information appropriately to facilitate inclusive collaboration and decision-making processes, adequate regulatory and legal frameworks are essential in the transformation to Blue Economy.


Our third blog in this series will explore some of the existing regulatory frameworks and different scales of governance in the context of Blue Economy.


Thank you to Lindsay Mosher, Steven Katona, Erich Pacheco and Johanna Polsenberg for their helpful editorial comments.