What is the Blue Economy Healthy Oceans as an Economic Driver

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has introduced a new project, The Foundations of a Blue Economy, to promote strong and sustainable ocean industries. Led by Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy, the project will focus on sustainable fisheries, renewable energy, tourism and recreation, and coastal restoration.

A blue economy, as conceived by CAP, centers on the value that healthy oceans provide to the welfare of all Americans. This value is difficult to quantify, because it encapsulates not only the financial impact of marine jobs, but also the biological, cultural, and spiritual importance of oceans and coastal areas.

“From an employment perspective we have good salary data, but in other areas the results are more environmentally sensitive and harder to quantify. For example, what are our fisheries capable of producing if they are rebuilt to sustainable levels?” Michael Conathan asked earlier this week at the project’s launch event in Washington D.C.

At the event, a panel of distinguished guests discussed the strengths and challenges of building a blue economy. Panelists included Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans, Miranda Ballentine, director of sustainability for Wal-Mart, and Jim Moriarty, CEO of Surfrider Foundation. The panel was moderated by Eric Roston, sustainability editor at Bloomberg News.

The panelists agreed that the intangible impacts of the oceans are often hard for the public to understand. It can take a crisis like the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster for people to realize how relevant the ocean is to their lives.

“One of the things that became strikingly obvious during Deepwater Horizon was just how dependent communities were on the health of the Gulf. Those were striking lessons,” Dr. Lubchenco said. The disaster drove home the “how interconnected coastal communities and their economies, and psychological health and wellbeing are to a healthy ocean,” she continued.

Those connections, she argued, are critical when engaging people on the importance of healthy, sustainable marine environments. “People love the coast, people love seafood,” she said. It’s the job of ocean advocates and communicators “to provide information that helps them make smart decisions.”

That information must be based on sound science, the panelists stressed.

Miranda Ballentine told the audience that Wal-Mart relies on sound science to instruct its buyers and make decisions about suppliers. But she added that sound science doesn’t always exist, and that Wal-Mart is committed to working with scientists to develop better, clearer information that looks at the “life cycle of the product.” Wal-Mart has a goal of 100 percent sustainably certified seafood; Ballentine says the company is now at 76 percent.

A whopping 85 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. “There is not enough seafood caught or farmed in the U.S. to supply all the demand,” Dr. Lubchenco noted. NOAA has a strong focus on developing sustainable aquaculture. “We have strongly regulated fisheries, and that’s not true of many other parts of the world. We don’t always know the social or economic or environmental conditions under which [foreign] fish were caught,” she added.

Three billion people around the world depend on seafood as their primary source of protein. In 2008, Americans consumed 16 pounds of fish per person.

Even more significant, more than half of all Americans now live in coastal watershed counties. The complex impacts of the oceans on their lives are difficult to quantify.

Jim Moriarty, of the Surfrider Foundation, works with surfers and beach-combers who are impassioned by ocean issues. “Something in their life shifts,” he says. “They go down to the beach and it’s different. They’ve noticed a slow motion decline. They realize that there’s a problem here and they need to engage.” Personally, Moriarty said, “I’m sick of surfing in trash. The farther you go away from the civilized world, the worse it is.”

Perhaps it’s those passionate people, together with sound science, that will change minds. As hard as it is to put a price tag on the oceans and their impacts, CAP’s Blue Economy project aims to do just that. At the Public Trust Project, we’re eager to see what they come up with. It’s an innovative approach: a focus on the value that healthy oceans provide to society, not just the combined worth of resources extracted from them.