World Ocean Forum
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World Ocean Forum

Will the Siren Call of the Blue Economy Lure Us to Our Demise?

by Tundi Agardy, Curator of the World Ocean Forum

The world is increasingly looking to the sea for drinking water, energy, food, and strategic minerals, alongside important non-extractive uses such as shipping and transport, recreation, and tourism. How this bodes for the future of humanity and the planet is open to question, as the global population is about 9 billion by 2050, and attendant demands for food and energy will be nearly double what they are today. Under-developed parts of the world are on trajectories to intensify their economic development, while developed countries continue to consume at per capita levels more than 10 times those of poorest countries. have already started, and the spectacular growth of energy-demanding desalination in response to water scarcity threatens access to and availability of seafood resources, already in decline from poor or absent fisheries management. At the same time, offshore energy development displaces fishers from those fishing grounds that are still productive, and catastrophic oil and chemical spills harm or even shut down fisheries.

To date, siloed thinking about how to plan economic development that allows for effective protection of the resource base, including management of marine resources and ecosystems delivering vital services, has resulted in uncoordinated fisheries, energy, mining, and marine use policies that do not allow the consideration of trade-offs and do not capitalize on the synergies that taking a nexus approach would provide. At the same time, the allure of the ‘Blue Economy’ may be pushing development of oceans even more quickly toward short term gain and long term un-sustainability. A paper by describes two competing discourses about oceans: one as areas of opportunity, growth, and development, and the other, of threatened and vulnerable spaces in need of protection.

The Blue Economy is getting much attention as countries undertake systematic ecosystem services assessments to identify the potential value of marine and coastal areas, and thereby recognize that their marine resources are sometimes under-utilized. However, for ocean development to be truly characterized as targeting a Blue Economy, decisions on resource use and space allocation must be made in such a way that long term environmental, social, and economic sustainability is maintained. Unfortunately, many governments are viewing any sort of marine development — including possibly unsustainable expansion of existing commercial fisheries, minerals extraction, and mass tourism, as well as the development of new industries whose sustainability has not been tested — as part of the new Blue Economy. This is essentially green-washing, that is, allowing unsustainable development to proceed as long as planning processes are labelled as participatory . But who participates and who benefits is widely variable from country to country, and many ocean planning initiatives do not promote sustainable and/or equitable uses of the marine and coastal environments.

Given the worldwide economic downturn that curtailed the rampant growth of the late 20th century, many coastal countries are now looking to unlock the blue growth potential in their maritime areas. Ocean industries are seen as having the potential to grow gross domestic product (GDP) and attract foreign investors into under-developed countries and areas. Though lip service is paid to the Blue Economy and its roots in sustainability, the rush to promote blue growth has occasionally eclipsed discussions of wider human well-being and the equitable sharing of benefits from commons areas. In some regions, government-sanctioned blue growth is seen as an excuse for ocean grabbing (the marine equivalent of land-grabbing, where ocean use is guaranteed to powerful business interests that have political influence, while local communities and artisanal users are denied access). As a result, many countries end up trying to pack as many profitable uses as possible into any given ocean space.

In this sort of distorted blue growth, conservation can end up being forced into a back seat as planning and policy initiatives are decided. Planning, and in particular marine or maritime spatial planning (MSP), is taken on as a regulatory necessity, not for problem-solving. The marine plans that result can be a codification of existing use patterns, or a synthesis of all the available datasets on marine ecosystems and their uses. MSP in these cases does not consider the full array of ecosystem services and values, nor considers seriously the trade-offs that must occur when development impairs ecosystem functioning. The consequence of marginalizing conservation instead of making conservation the cornerstone of sustainable use that maintains ecosystem functioning and productivity, could well be a lack of economic as well as social sustainability, and a loss of traditional values.

It seems odd that concerns about how development affects the long term health and viability of the ocean — and with it its ability to sustain humans — have only recently come to the fore. The siren song of the Blue Economy and the allure of being able to unlock the ‘blue growth potential’ may have blinded us to the risks of wholesale marine development. We continue to ignore the danger of messing with planetary balances and clinging to the notion that perhaps the ocean’s resources will be able to satisfy our insatiable appetites.

Coastal areas the world over have been the focus of much development, and the sustainability of such development has only recently been called into question. The damage we cause is hard to see, and our uneven knowledge about ocean ecology and how we undermine it creates opportunities for us to look away. We need the coastal infrastructure — even if it causes losses of important coastal habitat or impairs the functioning of coastal systems. Protected areas cannot mitigate the large scale transformations we are causing by coastal development and maritime industrial use.

At the same time, consumption drives an even more insidious loss of biodiversity, since the favorable attributes of coastal land draw in the affluent. People in high income demographics expend significantly more energy, rely on expensive imported products, and often deny others access to coastal shores and resources. As the cost of living goes up, the less well-off are pushed to marginalized areas, and can get caught in a poverty cycle (see graphic below) that drives them to over-exploit the resources they do have access to, causing further ecological impairment.

Marine planning that is grounded in principles of environmental, social, and economic sustainability could counter these trends. However, many countries are missing opportunities to use marine planning generally, and MSP more specifically, to their full potential to promote sustainable use of ocean space and resources while at the same time meeting social and conservation objectives. Effective MSP has the potential to steer us away from danger if it occurs in sync with coastal planning and allows the creation of truly effective ecosystem-based management. This can prevent degradation of important ecosystems by focusing management on drivers of degradation — even if those drivers do not trace back to ocean use but rather have their base in land and freshwater use. This sort of holistic planning also creates opportunities for trans-boundary collaboration to effectively manage shared resources. Marine planning processes can also ensure that the needs of local communities, and the safeguarding of values that extend beyond those captured by large maritime industries, are considered in decisions on how to allocate space and resources in an equitable way, while promoting economic growth. And well-executed MSP can anticipate climate change and other large-scale changes, and proactively plan for maximum resilience into the future. Finally, MSP and related ocean zoning can ensure that ecologically important areas are fully represented in a mosaic of use and protection. Such systematic conservation planning embedded into MSP will maximize the prospect that expanded use of marine space and accelerated development of maritime industries does not undermine ecosystem health and function.

Whether marine planning is used to promote equitable and balanced access or instead is used in a potentially dangerous way to promote rampant exploitation, corporate hegemony, and inequitable blue growth is up to us. We can heed the siren’s song and still steer clear of danger, but only if we pay attention and prepare, just as Odysseus did back when the ocean was still bountiful, the coasts were still natural, and the planetary balances (if not the Gods) seemed to be in harmony.

TUNDI AGARDY works at the interface between science and policy in marine systems around the world. She founded Sound Seas to do this independent work, and also holds positions with Forest Trends, as MARES Director, and at Baird & Associates, where she is Caribbean Environment Lead. Her major research interests and publications focus on coastal and marine planning, ocean zoning, marine protected areas, ecosystem services, and marine ecosystem based management. She serves as Curator of World Ocean Forum.



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