Prescription for a blue economy

06 May 2009 | News story

What do the global financial crisis and climate change have to tell us about the high seas? Both demonstrate the complexity of 21st century life.

US banks’ over reliance on sub prime mortgages led to bankruptcy in Berlin banks and panic in Detroit auto manufacturers. Coal-fired power plants in America and China have led to sea-level rise in Bangladesh and melting glaciers in Greenland. 

Similarly, what is happening to the high seas – the 64 percent of the oceans that lie beyond 200 nautical miles from shore – can have very real consequences closer to home. Key goods and services that we rely upon, such as oxygen, carbon storage and tuna are linked to open ocean and deep sea systems.

Increasing levels of CO2 in seawater is changing its basic chemistry, threatening to dissolve the calcium-based protective shells of key species from coccolithophores to cold-water corals. Climate change is increasing temperatures and shifting currents, disrupting the habitats and food supply of larger animals.

Scientists studying the oceans now warn us that the triple threat of climate change, ocean acidification and poorly-managed fisheries threaten not only the tuna, sea turtles and whales that circumnavigate vast ocean basins, but also the tiny plants that form the base of the oceanic food web.

These tiny plants convert the sun’s energy into life-sustaining oxygen and food for hungry humans and other animals.

If we have learned any lessons from the global financial crises, it is that tipping points to disaster do exist, but they are hard to predict. And, bailouts are very, very expensive.

The Stern Report on the economics of climate change tells us the same thing: the cost of prevention is far less than repair. We also now know that transparency, accountability, and oversight of the banking sector are essential components of effective financial management. High-risk strategies, while delivering high returns for the few in the short term, eventually end in tears for the many.

Both crises challenge us to rethink “business-as-usual” and to find new ways to cooperate on a global basis. Now, to sustain planetary life, we need to apply these cautionary lessons to global oceans management: we need to avoid high-risk schemes like planetary geoengineering and to invest in low-risk strategies, like establishing comprehensive networks of marine protected areas and precautionary management of ocean uses.

In addition to sharply curtailing greenhouse gases emissions, particularly CO2, these will ensure the best long-term value to help us weather the economic and environmental storms to come.

To secure a healthy blue economy, four steps are necessary. Firstly, the US needs to rejoin the global conversation movement, not just at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, but in the meetings where oceans and biodiversity are the major focus, namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The United States is the only major industrial nation that is not a party to both. This would enable the US to become a leader not a laggard in pushing for improvements in how the oceans beyond the limits of nation’s jurisdiction are managed – before the oceans themselves are pushed beyond their natural limits, with global repercussions.

Secondly, the United Nations needs to tackle the blue economy. As no one organization currently has the mandate to manage the high seas at a global level, we need the UN to establish a common goal and oversight institution to drive the performance of the many organizations responsible for regulating activities such as fisheries, shipping and any future planetary geo-engineering. As with the banking system, specialized marine institutions, and their State members, also need some form of ongoing oversight and accountability to ensure they act as wise stewards.

IUCN has developed a list of 10 principles for High Seas Governance that could provide a useful guide for modernizing national and institutional performance. These principles have been agreed at the global level and applied to natural resource management by many states within their own territories, but have not yet been consistently applied to the high seas.

Thirdly, we need to develop the tools and technologies for scaling up marine protected area networks to span the global ocean. As world leaders recognized in the Manado Ocean Declaration signed at the World Ocean Conference in Indonesia, marine protected areas are a key investment in protecting marine biodiversity, supporting sustainable fisheries and enhancing resilience to climate change.

Today, marine protected areas cover approximately 0.8 percent of the oceans, and most are small, individual protected areas close to shore, while most critical habitats and processes that lie off shore and beyond national jurisdiction remain unprotected. In contrast, more than 11 percent of the Earth’s landmass is protected through national parks and other systems.

To scale up marine protected areas networks, governments and scientists will need to identify and protect areas of significance to the wider marine economy. Important work to identify such areas is now underway at the Convention on Biological Diversity and within certain regional oceans organizations. But further work at the UN level is needed to ensure these areas can be properly protected, and to build regional capacity to manage such areas where it does not yet exist.

To support marine protected areas, we also need to develop tools for ecosystem-based management, including “stress tests” to identify areas at risk, environmental assessments of unregulated and under-regulated activities, and remote surveillance and monitoring of ecosystems and human activities. We also need to expand ocean research and environmental assessments to improve understanding of ecosystem connections and cumulative impacts.

Fourthly, we need to establish a financing mechanism for high seas conservation. One logical source would be funds from carbon taxes and CO2 emissions trading schemes. In line with the theory that those responsible for the damage should pay to repair it, such a fund could be supported also by user fees on fisheries, shipping and other high seas activities based on the value of the resources used or the damage done. The fund could be used, for example, to build regional capacity for ocean management.

It is becoming common wisdom that the current crises impel a “greening” of our economy. But we must not forget that 64 percent of our ocean is also under threat from the cumulative effects of long-term abuse and under-regulation. We also need a new “blue” economy.


This image shows the courtship behavior of Indian Bull frogs (Holobatrachus tigerinus). During the monsoon, the breeding males become bright yellow in color, while females remain dull. The prominent blue vocal sacs of male produce strong nasal mating call.