If you’ve ever participated in a coastal clean-up effort, you’ve experienced ocean protection activities firsthand. And if your day of picking up trash included buying sunscreen, wading in the surf or treating yourself to a snack from a beachside vendor, you’ve also contributed to a concept known as the blue economy.
Healthy Ocean, Healthy Economy
The World Bank defined the blue economy as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.” It includes activities such as commercial and recreational fisheries; maritime transport; ocean-related tourism and recreation; coastal protection and restoration; waste management; and offshore renewable energy development.
“A healthy ocean is critical to a thriving global economy,” said Philippe Cousteau, Jr., co-founder of EarthEcho International, an international environmental nonprofit. “The ocean provides countless economic services without which modern civilization could not exist.”
Indeed, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that the ocean generates more than $2.5 trillion of economic benefits worldwide each year.
Have a Plan
It’s not enough, however, for each part of the blue economy to conduct itself in sustainable ways, advised Amy Trice, director of Ocean Planning for Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.
“Imagine building a house where your carpenter, electrician, plumber, and framing crew did not work from a common plan,” Trice said. “What sort of house would you end up with?”
The same logic applies to ocean protection. “We don’t know nearly enough about the ocean and all of its potential uses,” said Trice. “If we invest in research, and strive to coordinate and share that data among scientists, industry groups, federal agencies, and conservation groups, we’ll come to faster, more informed decisions about how to use the ocean sustainably.”
As an example, Trice cited the placement of offshore wind turbines on the U.S. East Coast by Deepwater Wind in 2015. The company attributed its engagement with the Rhode Island state ocean planning process — and the shipping and fisheries habitat data it provided — to shortening by years the time required to permit and decide where to place its turbines.
Blue Economy at Work
Three out of seven people on the planet rely on seafood as their main source of protein, claimed Conservation International. And marine fisheries contribute more than $270 billion annually to global GDP according to the World Bank. Unfortunately, overfishing — catching more fish than the population can replace through natural reproduction — threatens more than 33 percent of the world’s fisheries.
To fight these trends, ocean conservation groups work to defend and strengthen the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which seeks to end overfishing, rebuild depleted fish populations and ensure sustainable fisheries management. The U.S. has also taken steps to set catch limits for each fishery and limit imports of fish that are not sustainably fished, a process explained by the Environmental Defense Fund.
Ocean Conservancy stated that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. Plastic debris poses threats not only to marine life through entanglement, but also to cargo ships, which transport more than $4 trillion worth of goods annually, according to the World Shipping Council.
Another growing concern, explained Trice, is microplastics, which are showing up even in remote parts of the world ocean. “A plastic bottle breaks up over time into small particles. Those particles are taken up by the marine food web, making their way from zooplankton and small fish up to larger fish which are ultimately consumed by humans,” she said. “We really don’t know the health implications of this trend.”
To help combat this plastic epidemic, the Northrop Grumman Foundation teamed up with EarthEcho in October to sponsor “Expedition: Plastic Seas,” a program designed to teach Australian teachers and students about the impact of plastic pollution on the southern coast of Australia.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere associated with climate change have also increased the amount of CO2 absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. This change in seawater chemistry also reduces levels of bicarbonate ions, the building block of skeletons and shells of marine organisms such as oysters, clams and corals.
“Ocean acidification has nearly forced many shellfish growers along the U.S. Pacific Coast to declare bankruptcy,” said Trice. “It represents a significant threat to the blue economy and illustrates the value of gathering and sharing OA data with fishing communities that depend on shellfish for their livelihood.”
Ocean acidification can also put coastal communities at risk by weakening or destroying coral reefs that support tourism and provide protection against storm surges exacerbated by sea level rise, Trice added.
Sharing the Future
In the end, explained Trice, ocean protection and the global economy are inextricably linked.
“With so much at stake, we need coordination among local, state, national and international stakeholders to identify and collectively solve problems,” she said. “Through responsible ocean planning, we’ll never have to choose between a healthy ocean and a healthy economy. We can actually have both.”
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