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The Blue Economy and Ocean Health: Part 3 - Blue Economy and Ocean Governance

This article is a third part in a four-part blog series discussing Blue Economy in the context of ocean governance frameworks.

Governing different activities across ocean environments differs from those for terrestrial systems due largely to the sheer physical complexity of oceans. Oceans are fluid, three-dimensional, interconnected and constantly changing environments where marine life, as well as human induced changes, move easily from one location to another, paying no mind to political boundaries. What’s more, governing the 64% of the ocean that lies beyond national jurisdiction —the High Seas— is particularly problematic due to its large size, lack of ownership, dearth of laws that favor appropriate management and difficulty in enforcing such laws. Yet, effective ocean governance is fundamental to maintaining ocean health and encouraging the growth of a sustainable Blue Economy, which in turn supports efforts towards global targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and provides direct benefits for human well-being.

In order to address these issues, we must first understand the current ocean governance landscape across all scales. Although the ocean policy landscape is evolving rapidly and some efforts regarding Blue Economy sectors are in place, such as Africa’s Blue Economy: A policy handbook, current ocean governance frameworks are plagued by fragmented strategies as well as overlapping legislation and agreements, limited scientific knowledge, and insufficient institutional and financial capacities.

The Royal Australian Navy heavy landing craft in Dili, Timor-Leste. 

international scale

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its two Implementing Agreements, the Deep-Sea Mining Agreement and the Fish Stocks Agreement, set out an overarching framework to guide use and development of the global ocean. But despite of providing a much-needed cornerstone for international maritime law, UNCLOS does not adequately integrate modern conservation principles (e.g., ecosystem approach, adaptive management, stakeholder participation) and tools (e.g., marine spatial planning, impact assessment) and fails to address burgeoning issues such as regulation of marine biodiversity extraction and conservation in the High Seas.

These gaps in international governance pose unique challenges in light of opportunities like bioprospecting (i.e., research and development related to marine genetic resources) which has the potential to become profitable in the near future. Further, the High Seas harbor significant (and still largely undiscovered) biodiversity that is under threat by human-induced changes which is why the protection of these areas is becoming increasingly urgent.

While there are many other international institutions aside from UNCLOS working to manage marine activities in the High Seas, most work is done within a single sector, issue, or geography, leading to inconsistency and lack of communication across sectors, making integrated planning and management all the more difficult.

regional scale

Regional ocean governance frameworks operate under UNCLOS and are generally sector specific, albeit some of the mechanisms aim to be cross-sectoral. Examples of such are Large Marine Ecosystem mechanisms and the Regional Seas Programmes whereas Regional Fishery Bodies remain sector-based.

  -  Regional Seas Programmes (RSPs) work to address the causes and consequences of environmental degradation by promoting collaboration within neighbouring countries. There are 18 Programmes and 150 participating countries, with varying degrees of involvement by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Four RSPs have a specific mandate to manage and develop activities in the High Seas; others are restricted to areas within the jurisdiction of the countries.

 - Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) aim at implementing integrated ecosystem-based approaches for the management of large coastal ocean areas by combining modules like fisheries, socio-economics and long-term ocean governance of transboundary resources. The 64 defined LMEs are identified by using biogeographic, oceanographic, and ecological characteristics.

 - Regional Fishery Bodies (RFBs) are mechanisms through which countries cooperate on the conservation, management and development of their fisheries resources, albeit some of the RFBs also deal with other issues, e.g., sustainable use and conservation of marine mammals. RFBs have different mandates and functions, and some manage activities in the High Seas (e.g., the ones targeting highly-migratory species such as tunas).

While the above mechanisms are steps in the right direction, their effectiveness —similar to international frameworks— is often challenged by sectoral and compartmentalized approaches with weak connections between different mechanisms. Many regional approaches also face implementation challenges and require support from other regulatory bodies.

national scale

UNCLOS also provides the overarching framework for national ocean governance. UNCLOS specifies that within the 200 nautical mile (230 mi or 370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) regime, the coastal states are responsible for ”exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing natural living or non-living resources” and using the best available science when decisions about these resources are made, setting legal obligations for marine resource management and sustainable use. The effective management and governance are, however, often challenged by competition and, on the other hand, lack of interaction between sectors, such as fisheries and socio-economic sectors.

Governing institutions at the national level are required to be increasingly flexible with the ability to adapt rapidly and simultaneously remain stable enough to support long-term development. Additionally, many of the challenges that national governments face are actually global (e.g., globalized economy, global environmental changes) making it difficult for them to manage these challenges independently.

Local fishing vessels docked at the Honolulu harbor, Hawaii.

on the blue horizon

 The global ocean is under tremendous pressure due to the growing demand for marine resources and by increasing threats from changing climate. The reality of this situation highlights the need to put in place appropriate governance frameworks that can address issues of sustainability, and promote sustainable resource use. To do so effectively, a strong Blue Economy is key. The Blue Economy reaches across many sectors and provides an opportunity for the development of more integrated and “whole-domain” governance mechanisms by minimizing  sectoral barriers.

For example, Seychelles’ National Blue Economy Strategic Roadmap is a pioneering effort to promote investment and growth in an ocean-based economy. Intended outcomes, such as recovery and protection of biodiversity, increased utilization of renewable energy and strengthened surveillance of offshore waters by increased maritime awareness and enforcement, are predicated on interconnected policy at national and international scales. Importantly, the strategy specifically outlines the need for “streamlined implementation” through an overarching system for its success.

Similarly, frameworks like the Ocean Health Index are needed to provide a cross-sectoral coordinating platform for informing decisions about the integrated management of marine ecosystems. Others, such as Mapping Ocean Wealth, assess ecosystem services to reflect human-ecosystem interactions and regional economic realities.

Woman selling tuna at a local market in Bali, Indonesia.

A strong Blue economy lies at the core of environmental, social and economic sustainability on both land and sea, and it promotes the transition from unsustainable growth to sustainability-based approaches. In order to improve ocean governance, it is essential to recognize the inter-linkages between healthy oceans, sustainable societies and economies, and how they all feed back into and rely on effective governance systems. A Blue Economy, impacting many sectors, provides a framework to design incentives for better integration.  

The final article of this blog series will discuss future developments and the process of institutionalizing the Blue Economy.


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