The key barriers for achieving a Blue Economy are social and economic, not environmental

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What is holding us back from achieving equitable and sustainable ocean economies, a ‘Blue Economy’?

This loaded question has been discussed and dissected for a long time and, as one might expect, there have been many possible answers proposed from many different perspectives. These include, for example, incentive structures that lead to overexploitation (economics), mismatches in the objectives of companies, nations, and local communities with less capacity to influence policy (political science), or global-scale anthropogenic pressures that are degrading marine ecosystem functioning (ecology and climate science). Like all complex issues, these factors and many others can be simultaneously correct. In a new paper published in Nature, we find that the key barriers to achieving a Blue Economy are social and economic, not environmental.   

Building from an incredibly diverse research team, both in scientific expertise and lived experiences, we took a social science-informed, data-driven approach to finding current gaps in our ability to establish a Blue Economy throughout the world. It is important to first define ‘Blue Economy’ given that it is a relatively recent term that already has been used in different ways and relates to other concepts such as ‘ocean economy,’ ‘sustainable ocean economy,’ or ‘blue growth.’ Drawing from its original definition, we refer to a Blue Economy as ocean resource-based activities that are socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable (e.g., profitable). Based on these objectives, we focused on the four components that are necessary for establishing a Blue Economy, i.e., ocean resources, and the capacity to develop them equitably, sustainably, and viably. To keep the analysis grounded and less speculative, we focused on six prominent sectors within established and emerging ocean industries. These included bioprospecting (finding species with genetic material useful for medical or industrial applications), blue carbon (receiving money to protect mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes to offset industrial carbon emissions), ecotourism, fisheries, mariculture, and production of ocean (offshore wind and tidal) energy.

A novel aspect of this analysis is that we integrated the very latest information on species and habitat distributions and abundances with key factors related to social equity. These factors include gender equality, group and economic equity, access to power, and others that have been extensively studied but up until now not explicitly incorporated into quantitative models to inform global ocean development. It can be difficult to integrate multi-disciplinary indicators in a way that is useful for creating aggregate indices and is transparent to highlight uncertainty throughout the process (and not just the results), especially when doing so across the world's oceans. To address this challenge, we developed a fuzzy logic model where one can evaluate whether each indicator value contributes to ‘very high,’ ‘high,’ ‘medium,’ or ‘low’ capacity to establish a Blue Economy. All decisions related to those thresholds, how indicators relate to one another, and which indicators should be added (or dropped) can be presented transparently, which is very important given the complexity of the issues being addressed. We indeed argue that these decisions should be questioned and changed to apply this model at local scales since local objectives, contexts, and perspectives are, again, a key component of a Blue Economy.

Our study found that there are differences in Blue Economy capacity around the world, but those differences are not because of local availability of natural resources (see Figure 1 below). In fact, there are no significant differences between developing or developed countries when it comes to available natural resources. The gaps are in the ability to ensure that resources are developed equitably and viably, including factors such as corruption, national stability, and infrastructure. In a way, this result can be seen optimistically in that these factors can be addressed through targeted efforts and investments. It would be difficult to create more fish or wind, but one can certainly combat corruption, build infrastructure, and include local communities or specific groups of people that have been historically marginalized in making development decisions.

Figure 1. Indicators (left) and global scores (right) for Blue Economy capacity, Enabling Conditions (social, economic, environmental), and Resource Availability. 

The results of this study can provide guidance for regions of the world seeking to carefully choose the most appropriate sectors and enabling conditions to invest in and the most appropriate pathways to do so. For example, many regions have shown interest in economic growth-focused approaches that may increase short-term profits but, based on our results and historical evidence, would likely worsen inequities and contribute little to well-being. Just as importantly, the results of our study show that natural capital and environmental sustainability, while very important, are simply not the biggest barrier to supporting social well-being, and are not a replacement for ensuring basic human rights and achieving our national and global development goals. 

The ongoing global struggle to truly integrate environmental science into more sustainable industries has shown that changing economic structures and development approaches will not be easy. And yet, our results add to a growing body of scientific evidence which shows that we must prioritize social and economic contexts and perspectives if we hope to support human well-being, and healthy oceans, now in and in the future. 

Cisneros-Montemayor AM, Moreno-Báez M, Reygondeau G, Cheung WWL, Crosman KM, González-Espinosa PC, Lam VWY, Oyinlola M, Swartz W, Zheng CW, Ota Y. 2021. Enabling conditions for an equitable and sustainable blue economy. Nature 591: 396–401

Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor

Research Associate, The University of British Columbia