World Catching on to Importance of Blue Economy

© GeneralMedia

In this week’s episode of “EARTH A New Wild,” my colleague M. Sanjayan visits Papua New Guinea, the Bahamas, the Sea of Cortez and New York City to spotlight just a few of the ways people are interacting with our oceans.

Humans have always depended on the “blue” covering most of our planet. Yet only recently have we become more aware of the magnitude of our impacts — and realized what we must do to conserve and be able to continue to benefit from these waters.

Case in point: In January, the deadlock at the United Nations about how to manage the high seas was finally broken. The U.N. agreed to begin a two-year process to discuss the elements of a legally binding agreement on the high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction, which are the waters beyond 200 nautical miles [370 kilometers] from the coastline. They will report back to the U.N. General Assembly by the end of 2017.

Setting up a process for discussion may not sound like much progress, but for an organization of 193 member states that often moves at a glacial pace, it is a sign that oceans have moved up the agenda of international affairs.

It may surprise you to learn that 60% of the world’s oceans are waters that do not belong to any one country. They are owned by everybody and nobody at once, a situation that understandably makes sustainable management a challenge. This step forward for high-seas conservation is a reflection of a growing awareness among government and business leaders that our oceans underpin human well-being through a global “blue economy.”

It takes time to get every country on the planet on the same page regarding oceans, but the momentum for change is growing.

One of the draft U.N. Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals later this year is dedicated entirely to oceans and coasts. Some of Asia’s economic giants are holding summits on blue economy. The governments of the Netherlands and Grenada are doing the same. And let me tell you, there will be no blue economy — no sustainable fisheries, no coastal economies and livelihoods, no ocean-based tourism and no mariculture — if we do not take care of the marine ecosystems that underpin these valuable industries.

So what do government officials and corporate CEOs need to do to secure a sustainable blue economy that can continue to generate benefits and prosperity for people?

In a sense, securing the blue economy is a bit like traditional navigation of a large oceangoing vessel to a safe destination. To do this, I think three things are needed:

1. Fixing our compass.

As economist Pavan Suhkdev has often said, our current economic system does not adequately incorporate the cost of impacts on the environment; it simply refers to them as “externalities.” We need to properly value the benefits ocean ecosystems provide to economic sectors, to communities and to societies. Most economic decisions are made without adequately taking into account ocean ecosystem goods and services. For these benefits to be part of decision-making, quantifying their economic values and the specific groups of people who depend on them are essential. We simply cannot navigate our vessel safely to its destination without a working compass.

2. Determining where we’re starting our journey.

For this, we need a way to measure the status and likely future trends of ocean health and the ability of the ocean to provide benefits to people. After all, how can we manage ocean health if we can’t measure it?

A couple of years ago, my colleagues and I were asked an important question by a successful business leader: Is there any consistent way to measure ocean health?

After careful review, we realized there was no such global tool in place, but that it would be possible to develop one. So, together with over 45 researchers worldwide — including the National Center for Ecosystem Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of British Columbia, National Geographic Society and New England Aquarium — that’s just what we did. The Ocean Health Index measures the oceans’ ability to sustainably provide 10 types of benefits to people both now and in the future, including food provision, coastal protection, carbon storage and tourism and recreation.

The Index’s scores have been updated every year since they were originally published in 2012. Globally, ocean health scored 67 out of 100 in 2014, showing that we have a long way to go before we are optimally using and managing our oceans. Fortunately, government leaders seem to agree; two dozen countries are already using or exploring the use of the Index to guide ocean priorities and actions.

3. Getting the whole crew to work together with a common purpose.

Effectively integrating management of ocean ecosystems into development decisions will require smart design by breaking down the traditional silos of ocean management where one government agency manages one ocean use or sector, often at cross-purposes with other sectors, companies or organizations.

I am optimistic that there is increased recognition around the world that business-as-usual is not an effective way to manage oceans and marine resources. In several countries where Conservation International works, including Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru, inter-institutional ocean commissions have been created to bring together all the relevant agencies with mandates for more effective ocean management. Similarly, both Costa Rica and Ecuador have created vice ministries for oceans that aim to coordinate activities to ensure more holistic ocean management.

These three things are essential to secure safety and prosperity for people and the planet. Concerted action on all three is the least we should expect from the 193 leaders of the U.N. member states and our corporate leaders.

If you need to be reminded about what is at stake, tune in to this week’s episode of “EARTH A New Wild” (airing Wednesday at 10/9c on PBS) for more evidence of how people and oceans are closely tied together and how our future depends on the big “blue.”

Sebastian Troëng is senior vice president and managing director of Conservation International’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.