Keeping oceans healthy to keep the blue economy running

21 Feb 2020

The significance of oceans for the global economy is immense and the progress of blue economy will depend on the achievement of sustainable development

Blue economy
85% of the global population is involved in fisheries and aquaculture. However, increasing ocean acidification, temporal changes, and unsustainable fishing pose high risks for this sector.

With the race to 2030 already underway, the thrust to look at the health of oceans has increased exponentially, both in international and national policies. The next decade is crucial to achieving the Agenda 2030 of sustainable development goals (SDGs) and even more crucial in accelerating progress in sustainable development of the oceans. As reported by the Sustainable Development Report 2019, India still has significant challenges to overcome with respect to Sustainable Development Goals SDG 14- Life under Water and ranks 115 out of 162 countries in the overall SDG Index. With many countries gearing to deploy blue economy framework within the growth trajectory, the need to overlay blue economy with Agenda 2030 is imperative for the success of both.

There are various definitions of blue economy. However, what underpins every definition is the core comprised of economic growth, social development, security, and sustainable development. These core issues of blue economy are prioritised based on the needs and the strategic focus of every country's macroeconomic and socio-political framework.

Oceans cover 72% of the earth's surface and nearly 40% of the world's population lives within 100 km of coastline. Shipping is responsible for more than 90% of the trade between countries and is very important for the economic growth of various countries. The shipping sector is also vital for energy and food security, with a majority of exports and imports of conventional fuels and bulk commodities travelling through Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) [1]. The global oceans based economy is estimated at $US3 trillion a year, which is around 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP). The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that blue economy industries provide for the livelihoods of over 820 million people globally in diverse fields including maritime shipping, transport, energy generation, mining, construction, trade, tourism, research, and ecosystem services.

The significance of oceans for the global economy is immense and the progress of blue economy will depend on the achievement of sustainable development. A good example of this symbiotic relationship is the fisheries sector, wherein, 85% of the global population involved in fisheries and aquaculture, and 75% of the global fishing vessels are from Asia.

According to FAO 2018, the percentage of stocks fished at biologically sustainable levels has increased from 10% in 1974 to 33% in 2015 – with most of the increase taking place in the 1970 and 1980s. The fisheries sector is also a major contributor to food security as global food fish consumption has grown from 9 kg in 1961 to 20.2 kg in 2015 (in per capita terms). In this too, Asia emerged as the largest consumer in 2015.

Food security management

Increasing ocean acidification, temporal changes and unsustainable fishing pose high risks for the fisheries sector and in turn for food security. According to a paper on the High Level Panel on Sustainable Blue Ocean Economy focusing on the 'Future of food from the sea', the ocean is a major food source and is projected to become an essential component in the global food palate.

With rising population and income, the demand for ocean-derived food is set to grow. The paper states that certain estimates highlight "that nearly 500 million metric tons (mmt) of animal meat will be required to feed the global population in 2050 (FAO 2018, 2009) — food from the sea has a large potential to meet this need".

In addition, ocean sourced food is easily accessible to coastal populations and fulfils the dietary and nutritional requirements essential for human health. According to the high level panel report, "seafood plays an important role in nutrition provision for low-income countries in Africa and Asia". The paper also highlights the advantages of ocean sourced food, specifically with regards to greenhouse gas emissions. It states that the "GHG emissions per portion of protein associated with the production of large pelagic, small pelagic and white fish capture fisheries, as well as the production of molluscs and salmon in mariculture, are lower compared to terrestrial animal production (Hilborn et al. 2018)". [i]

Role of ocean health in climate change

The role of oceans in climate change is essential to the success of limiting global warming to 2 degrees and the subsequent 1.5 degrees. Oceans are the world's heat and carbon sinks and rapid and devastating changes to their ecosystem will lead to irreparable damages to ocean ecology. This will in turn lead to significant economic and social losses both for global and national economies.

The coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is a visible example of altering marine ecosystems due to climatic changes. It has been estimated that unabated climate change could cause revenue losses of over 90% to coral reef tourism. In addition, some West African countries are forecasted to see fish stocks decline by 85%. [ii]

According to IUCN and IPCC Fifth assessment report 2013 [iii], "oceans have absorbed 93% of the extra energy from the enhanced greenhouse effect, with warming now being observed at depths of 1,000 m. As a consequence, this has led to increased ocean stratification (prevention of water mixing due to different properties of water masses), changes in ocean current regimes, and expansion of depleted oxygen zones." This is leading to shifts in the geographical zone of marine species, changes in growing seasons, and rapid deterioration of some marine life in certain ocean zones and population explosion of others.

Rising sustainability concerns - The case of jellyfish blooms

Blue economy
Rising temperatures have led to an influx of jellyfish blooms, creating significant problems at coastlines and ports, and in recent years even in power plants, and a desalination plant.

To a large extent, many marine species are on the verge of entering the endangered and extinction lists. However, one marine species, the jellyfish, is thriving in the warm and polluted waters across the globe.[iv] In the past decade, massive jellyfish colonies and groupings have appeared out of nowhere, creating significant problems at coastlines and ports. These sightings are becoming more prominent with rising temperatures, which has led to an influx of jellyfish blooms.

Huge annual jellyfish blooms have been cropping up not just across the Mediterranean, but also the Black Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Yellow and Japan Seas. In recent years, power plants in Scotland, Japan, Israel and Florida, and also a desalination plant in Israel, were forced to shut down because jellyfish were clogging the water inlets. A power plant in Edinburgh was forced to shut down for several days in 2011 due to the incoming swarm of jellyfish.[v]

Jellyfish blooms are also a hazard to the fishing industry, with the blooms entangling in fishing nets and reducing oxygen to fish, leading to their death. The only salmon farm in Ireland lost its entire production in 2007 due to a jellyfish invasion [vi]. The most extraordinary blooms have been those occurring in waters off Japan since 2002, costing the country's fish industry billions in economic losses. [vii] [viii]

The minimal to almost no requirement for oxygen ensures jellyfish's expansion even in polluted waters. This has also led to researchers looking for ways to combat marine pollution by studying the genetic makeup of these creatures [ix]. However, the jellyfish phenomenon also raises concerns on how the cyclic impact of warming oceans could impact coastal infrastructure, leading to significant economic losses and also raising the risk of accidents in critical economic infrastructure that in turn may lead to loss of lives.

Key takeaways

While the world is still trying to understand the full magnitude of the problem, especially in the context of oceans, the time left to act is short and the goal is immense. SDG 14 - Life under water - provides a mechanism to balance economic development within the the sustainability context. The IPCC 2019 report estimates that climate-induced declines in ocean health will cost the global economy $428 billion per year by 2050 and $1.98 trillion per year by 2100. The magnitude and inequity of these losses are highly sensitive to future greenhouse gas emissions across sectors of the ocean economy [x].

There is thus an urgent need to restore and repair ocean health. The future of global food security, maintenance of a balanced marine life, and unexpected impacts of changing ocean ecosystem on existing coastal infrastructure and blue economy will be significant if left unchecked. The need of the hour is to understand the impacts of the environmental changes at sea, expedite the mechanisms for conservation and preservation and thereby ensure the longevity of the ocean-based economy.


[i] Costello, C., L. Cao, S. Gelcich et al. 2019. The Future of Food from the Sea. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.
[ii] Gaines, S., R. Cabral, C. Free, Y. Golbuu, et al. 2019, The Expected Impacts of Climate Change on the Ocean Economy. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.[2]
[iii] IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) (2017), Issues Brief: The Ocean and Climate Change. Switzerland: International Union for Conservation of Nature
[1] Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) is a term describing the primary maritime routes between ports, used for trade, logistics and naval forces.