Towards an inclusive blue economy

Action in policy and practice is needed to ensure the many benefits from oceans, seas and coasts are available to all.

Andrew Norton's picture
Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022
01 June 2016
An image of an artisanal fisher in Kiribati casting his net into the water; 90 per cent of all fishers are small-scale or artisanal (Photo: Quentin Hanich/WorldFish, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

An artisanal fisher in Kiribati; 90 per cent of all fishers are small-scale or artisanal (Photo: Quentin Hanich/WorldFish, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

I had the privilege of participating on the panel for an event on 'sustainable blue economies' (PDF) during the second meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) last week in Nairobi. This gave me the chance to dig into the excellent work on oceans and coastal fisheries led by IIED's Essam Yassin Mohammed.

What is the 'blue economy'?

'Blue economy' is a tricky term. It is defined differently by different interest groups. At one end of the spectrum sits conservation of the marine environment, with exploiting marine and coastal resources to maximise economic output at the other.   

Or it can be read (as Essam would have it) as incorporating the same themes of sustainable and inclusive development as 'green economy' – in other words, striking a balance between conservation and socioeconomic outcomes. Cue earnest discussions about the best formulation – 'blue-green', 'turquoise' or just 'blue'…

For me it should be read as capturing the full range of values and functions that oceans and coasts bring to human society. Looked at in this way, some important aspects become clear.  

The value of oceans: multiple layers

Starting at a basic level, the first question is who depends on ocean and marine resources for livelihoods and sustenance?

It is poor people in poor countries who clearly predominate here. Best estimates are that 300 million people depend directly or indirectly on marine fisheries for their primary livelihood.  

According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (PDF), of those who are fishers, 94 per cent are in developing countries, and some 90 per cent are small-scale or artisanal fishers. We are talking mostly about people who don't have land, people who don't have wealth.

Fish is also an important source of protein in many poor and vulnerable communities. An estimated two and a half billion people worldwide depend on fish for 20 per cent or more of their protein intake. This contribution is even more important in developing countries, especially small island states and in coastal regions, where more than 50 per cent of people's animal protein frequently comes from fish. 

Healthy oceans of course contribute to livelihoods in many other ways, including through tourism and leisure industries, all of which are threatened by unsustainable resource use of different kinds, from over-fishing to bad coastal management practices. This adds to the damage being done, for example, to coral reefs by the chemical and temperature stress caused by climate change.

Coastal protection

Beyond livelihoods and nutrition, coastal ecosystems (mangroves, corals, salt marshes and so on) play a vital role in protecting coastal cities, communities and environments from the impact of storm surge.  

It is widely believed that the extensive erosion of coastal wetlands in Louisiana over the previous century considerably increased the vulnerability of New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (although there are different estimates of the size of this effect).  

A specific kind of wetland – mangroves – are highly effective as coastal protection and one of the most carbon-rich environments in existence. Sadly, the world has lost roughly half of its mangrove forest in the last 50 years.

Coral reefs are also hugely effective in protecting coastlines from cyclone damage and storm surge – and corals are much more effective in this regard when they are healthy. 

A recent study found that reefs reduce wave energy by an average of 97 per cent. The report also found that 197 million people are protected by reefs worldwide, and that maintaining the health of coral reefs is far less expensive than installing artificial defences – according to the report, the median cost of building artificial wave defences is US $19,791 per metre compared with $1,290 per metre for projects to restore coral.

Oceans and coastal environments provide a range of other benefits of course – from air purification, aesthetic beauty and leisure, to food for the human imagination.  

At the most basic levels of livelihoods, nutrition and security however, these are resources with a strong bias towards supporting the sustenance and security of poor people and poor communities.

Action for an inclusive blue economy

Three things emerged for me as important for public policy action for an inclusive blue economy as a result of the discussion:

  • To use the policy tools of natural capital accounting to fully value all goods and services provided by marine and coastal ecosystems and then to communicate that to publics and planners so that we can demand sustainable and effective approaches to planning coastal development
  • To engage coastal communities in practical action to conserve and manage coastal ecosystems. This is an essential step but also a challenging one in practice. Poor fishers and coastal people need support to be able to devote scarce time and resources to conservation. This can be done through incentive-based management schemes, enabling poor people to take a short-term hit to their livelihoods in order for longer-term benefits to them, local communities and (sometimes) the planet as a whole.

    There are many challenges – unclear property rights, difficulties of making the payments fair, finding sustainable sources of finance. However, successful examples are being developed as the case of the hilsa fisheries initiative in Bangladesh and a range of other examples illustrate, and
  • To establish the principle that the open oceans should be regarded as a common heritage of humanity. The new global process to develop an international legally binding treaty covering the governance of ocean areas that lie outside of national territorial waters provides a unique opportunity. Essam describes this aptly as 'governing half of the planet for all of the world's people'.  

Our oceans and coastlines are vitally important global public goods and critical resources for many of the planet's most vulnerable people. An 'inclusive blue economy' must take both of these dimensions into account.

Andrew Norton ([email protected]) is director of IIED.