Industrialization of the oceans: Is it time to dive into the “blue economy”?

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

When I was a kid, I spent most of my summer days exploring my local Long Island beach. I’d watch birds, build sand castles and—ever the entrepreneur—would dig up quahog clams to sell, for a quarter each, to my neighbors who lay sunbathing on their beach blankets on the shore.

Beach birdwatching: A nice gathering of plovers. Credit: Erica Cirino
Beach birdwatching: A nice gathering of plovers. Credit: Erica Cirino

Little did I know in those childhood clamming days, I was getting into a developing industry that in just a dozen years or so would begin to boom: the blue economy, or the business of sustainably exploiting the seas and coastlines.

While humans have long been extracting marine life, energy, minerals and other resources from the oceans and coasts, it’s only recently that any thought has been given to doing so in a way that minimizes environmental harm and ensures these resources last into the future. Proponents of the blue economy say, while it can be challenging, we have to think of oceans and coasts in dollars in cents in order to best protect them.

Jason Scorse, director of the Center for the Blue Economy and chair of the International Environmental Policy Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is one of those proponents. “There’s a really interesting paradox, the things we think are precious and most sacred are actually the things that need price tags the most.”

Scorse explains as new technologies open up new opportunities to take from the seas and coasts, they can also cause great destruction. One example, Scorse points out, are New Orleans’ wetlands—in the past thought of as not much more than breeding grounds for mosquitoes—dredged for shipping lanes and industrial parks. Yet, says Scorse, “The thinking that went behind this act was really faulty. People didn’t understand the incredible value wetlands provide…storm protection.”

Birds at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2010. Credit: Mr. Bill Lang
Birds at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans, Louisiana, 2010. Credit: Bill Lang

Indeed, scientists have concluded in the wake of Katrina that Louisiana’s wetland loss exacerbated damage caused by the hurricane. Scorse and other blue economy proponents argue that policymakers would be more apt to protect wetlands and other oceanic and coastal features if they were assigned a monetary value.

One major new area of exploration in the blue economy is carbon sequestration. Oceans capture about 30 percent of Earth’s carbon emissions annually, but as more carbon goes into the atmosphere, the more is destined for the seas. More carbon makes seawater more acidic, harming marine life—especially corals.

Taking a blue economy point of view, we should place a dollar value on the ocean’s ability to absorb climate-change accelerating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Doing so could guide emissions policies that limit the amount of carbon we release so the ocean can continue pulling carbon from the atmosphere but without causing seawater to acidify.

A classic area of ocean exploitation harking back to my childhood clamming days is fishing. A blue economy approach, Safina Center Writer in Residence and fisheries expert Paul Greenberg explains, would involve scaling back wild fish catch quotas and fleets in fisheries that are overfished. This would mean a greater reliance on aquaculture, or farmed fish, which would be limited by the amount of forage fish that could be obtained for feed.

Coastal net pens off the coast of Maine. When limits are placed on wild fish catches, fish farms like these may be able to pick up fishing industry's slack. Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service
Coastal net pens off the coast of Maine. When limits are placed on wild fish catches, fish farms like this may be able to pick up fishing industry’s slack. Credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service

However, some discipline when it comes to managing fisheries in blue economy fashion could pay off, says Greenberg. “Twenty years down the line, however, there’s evidence that overall fisheries production could increase. A bank account with a larger principle yields more interest and that is the kind of reward we’d hope to gain by building our principle of wild fish to a much larger size than it has today.”

As part of the National Aquarium’s 48 Days of Blue campaign, which spans the 48 days between Earth Day and World Oceans Day on June 8, you can find daily challenges to benefit the seas on the aquarium’s website and we’ll be incorporating one challenge per week into our blog posts.

Some challenges this week touch on economics and climate change! Partake in the blue economy—and other sustainable economies—by being extra mindful of the things you buy. Go local, beware of palm oil and other exploitative commodities, and avoid anything wrapped in plastic!

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.