Bluer Than Blue: Boosting the Ocean Economy

Stevedore carrying a 95-kg yellowfin tuna in Palawan, Philippines.
Stevedore carrying a 95-kg yellowfin tuna in Palawan, Philippines.

By Jackie Thomas

As we reflect on the importance of the ocean today, the annual Coral Triangle Day held on 9 June has become a landmark regional event to celebrate World Oceans Day with one simple message: protect the ocean that sustains us all.

As we reflect on the importance of the ocean today, the annual Coral Triangle Day held on 9 June has become a landmark regional event to celebrate World Oceans Day with one simple message: protect the ocean that sustains us all.

The ocean is the blue heart of the Earth. It not only connects land, water, and people; but also supports life on the planet. The ocean is also central to climate regulation, nutrient flows, hydrological and carbon cycles, and is home to an array of wildlife. The ocean is an important source of food, livelihood, and income for billions of people, as well as raw materials for medical and other uses.

However, the ocean and its marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, are being impacted by unsustainable human activities: from pollution, overfishing, sedimentation, to habitat destruction. Unless urgent actions are taken to address the most pressing threats to our oceans, including those caused by climate change, and to build resilience of the rich and diverse marine ecosystems and species, we will be facing a domino effect resulting in  increased acidification and the downfall of fish stocks. This would subsequently prevent the blue heart from functioning well within the planet and, eventually, impact on the Earth’s ability to provide the goods and services necessary for humans to survive.

Bleached hard corals in Papua New Guinea.

WWF recognizes that many governments, organizations, and communities in both developed and developing countries are becoming aware of the need for a more coherent, integrated, fair, and science-based approach to managing the economic development of the ocean. In the recently released brief Principles for a Sustainable Blue Economy, WWF states that “humanity increasingly understands that we are an integral part of the  marine ecosystem, and that we must plan and implement our economic  activities with care, balancing the desire to improve human living  standards and wellbeing with the  imperative to sustain ecosystem health.” To do this, WWF advocates that “active leadership is needed, in both the public and private sectors, to steer the Blue Economy in a sustainable direction. This includes delivering on commitments already made – globally, regionally, nationally, and locally.”

There have been many definitions of a Blue Economy. The past few years alone have seen a surge in the use of this term in policy discussions around the world. Some define it as the utilization of ocean resources for sustainable economic development. Others, however, define it as any economic activity involving the marine sector, regardless of whether it is sustainable or not. Despite the term’s wide usage in the policy arena, there still seems to be no widely accepted definition of a Blue Economy. To help address this gap and promote increased understanding of what a sustainable Blue Economy is, WWF has developed a set of principles to ensure that economic development of the ocean contributes to true prosperity and resilience.

According to these proposed principles, a sustainable Blue Economy is a marine-based economy that:

  • Provides social and economic benefits for current and future generations.
  • Restores, protects and maintains the diversity, productivity, resilience, core functions, and intrinsic value of marine ecosystems.
  • Is based on clean technologies, re­newable energy, and circular material flows.

Boosting the ocean economy in the Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle, the global center of marine biodiversity, is a 6 million km2-area spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste. Within this nursery of the seas live 76% of the world’s coral species, 6 of the world’s 7 marine turtle species, and at least 2,228 species of reef fish. It directly sustains 120 million people, and gathers revenues of $2.4 billion on sustainable fisheries and $12 billion on nature-based tourism industries alone.

The Coral Triangle’s reefs and fisheries are facing similar threats, which could impact on the marine environment’s ability to provide food security and livelihoods.  

The recently published WWF report Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): Smart investments in ocean health highlights the Blue Economy concept, emphasizing that expansion of ocean protection could return an increase in jobs, resources and services that far outweigh the costs. Some of the findings reveal that:

A fresh fish market in Manado, Indonesia.

  1. The total ecosystem service benefits of achieving 10% coverage of MPAs are estimated to be $622-923 billion from 2015 to 2050. For 30% coverage, the benefits range from $719 billion to $1,145 billion over the same period.
  2. The economic rates of return range between 9% and 24%. These high rates of return indicate a strong economic case for investment in expanding global coverage of MPAs, in terms of net benefits from increased provision of important ecosystem goods and services.
  3. The estimated net benefit (once known costs are taken into account) from increased ecosystem goods and services ranges from $490 billion to $920 billion.

In the Coral Triangle region, we are seeing examples of governments, communities, and the private sector taking action to become more sustainable. For example, the Government of Indonesia has developed a Blue Economy framework and is promoting expansion of marine areas under protection. The State Government of Sabah in Malaysia has committed to gazette Tun Mustapha Park, close to one million hectares of ocean, by 2015. Pacific countries are using community-based resource management and ecosystem based approaches to create Locally Managed Marine Areas to improve management of their coastal resources and help to support fisheries and food security.

An overwhelming amount of research is showing that our oceans cannot continue to generate enough seafood to sustain wild capture fishes especially at the rates required by today’s growing population. Increasing investment in MPAs is a wise choice for governments, financial institutions, businesses, and communities interested not only in food security but also to attain a sustainable Blue Economy.