How to build a sustainable blue economy that works for people and nature

By John Tanzer, WWF Global Ocean Lead

Antonio Busiello / WWF-US

The Economist World Ocean Summit has always billed itself as a forum to focus on ocean health and sustainability. But when I first started attending the summit in 2012, industry heavyweights were largely focused on how to extract more short-term value from the ocean economy. Sustainability was still seen as a side issue — worthy, perhaps, but not essential.

When WWF sounded the alarm in 2015 about the value at risk in the ocean economy — US$2.5 trillion a year — due to destructive practices and climate change, industry and policy types took note. Suddenly, the turtle huggers were speaking the language of banks and business — risks, returns and natural capital in the form of mangroves, coral reefs and other habitats that do double duty as coast-defending infrastructure. Since then, we have relentlessly insisted that we must build a sustainable blue economy — anything less actively undermines the well-being of both people and the planet.

This week’s Economist World Ocean Summit is billed as the pre-eminent platform to debate challenges, share strategies and mobilize action to build a sustainable ocean economy. It promises opportunities to “explore the role the ocean plays in tackling climate change, enhancing biodiversity, protecting coastal communities, and restoring ecosystems.” We’re talking the talk. Now we must walk the walk.

Envisioning ocean ecosystems with people at the centre

For as long as people have dwelled on coasts, we have been shaping ocean ecosystems. But for most of my career in ocean conservation, people were seen as separate from ocean ecosystems. Or, if we’re being honest, people were simply the problem. This bifurcated worldview, with people separate from nature, has pushed the ocean, climate and biodiversity to their very limits, while poverty, hunger and inequality still plague billions. I think it’s fair to say that worldview was woefully myopic.

We need to correct our vision to recognize the intrinsic links between people and nature, the ocean and climate. Repairing the widespread damage to the ocean’s diversity and rebuilding the ocean’s life-support capacity requires targeted policies and investments to strengthen the resilience of coastal communities.

naturepl.com / Tony Wu / WWF

Bringing communities into the centre of global, regional and local efforts to build a sustainable blue economy is ethically the right and just approach. It is also simply essential if practical and effective interventions to deliver conservation are to succeed. Many coastal areas and small islands in the global South come under the stewardship of communities that are struggling with food security, viable livelihoods, health, education and safety. Expecting these same communities to deliver conservation without development assistance and the necessary investment to facilitate the trade-offs required is both unwise and unfair.

Taking an equity and human rights approach to environmental issues is therefore fundamental if we are to achieve inclusive and resilient economic development. There is an ocean of opportunity for a nature-positive approach based on clean energy production and shipping, sustainable fishing and aquaculture, protecting key habitats like coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass, and creating opportunities for small-scale producers to participate fully and fairly in growing industries like seaweed farming. Marine protected areas also can be better leveraged to safeguard ocean assets, provide social dividends and underpin the blue economy.

To make the most of these opportunities, we must reject certain other activities, such as deep seabed mining, oil and gas expansion, and overfishing ever deeper and farther from shore.

But the debate about appropriate industries must not overshadow the most fundamental principle of a sustainable blue economy: people are at its centre, and not just a few, to the exclusion of the most ocean-dependent and vulnerable. We need to see the ocean as a socio-ecological system, where principles of equity, inclusiveness and transparency, as well as ecological limits and function, underscore all aspects of decision-making.

Equity

Ocean equity is about ensuring that benefits from ocean resources are available to all, respectful of traditional rights, particularly to those who are vulnerable, poor or marginalized, and that decent work is available to all. Ensuring equity requires us to embrace a broader range of values than simply economic growth in the assessment of the benefits from ocean assets. Prioritizing equity means assigning a high value to maintaining ecological functions, and providing nutritional security for vulnerable groups. Recognizing such social benefits allows assets to be reframed in terms of providing public health values and food security values, leading to a more holistic policy discourse around their allocation.

Equity also means generating quality jobs and access to financial opportunities. This should extend to the diversification of livelihoods and income, building resilience to unanticipated changes.

Inclusivity

A key aim of inclusivity should be to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable populations to climate change, disaster impacts and environmental degradation. This means building social and institutional resilience, reducing poverty, delivering social protection programs and ensuring coming climate disasters don’t simply leave the poor poorer.

There should be a focus on building women’s resilience to climate change and disaster impacts through greater access to technologies and finance, diversification of livelihoods, and increased participation in women-led solutions, among others. We must also pay particular regard to vulnerable and marginalized groups, focusing on youth, the elderly, and addressing disability inclusion.

Green Renaissance / WWF-UK

Inclusivity prioritizes community-led solutions, including the use of local, indigenous and traditional knowledge, revitalizing indigenous stewardship, and ensuring participation of vulnerable populations in decision-making process at all levels. This is particularly relevant to nature-based solutions, where traditional and indigenous approaches have considerable merit compared to many coastal hardening tactics.

Transparency

Public goods need to be managed in the public interest. Coastal habitats and coastal and ocean fish populations provide a range of protective and nourishing functions, which need to be optimized under an equitable and inclusive system. Today, much of the process of exploiting, distributing and profiting from the ocean’s resources is opaque. Communities have no seat at the table. There needs to be full transparency about economic activities and political decision-making involving the coastal zone. With proper political will, we can ensure taxes and fees are paid that properly value the resource used or impact, and close the loopholes that currently exist.

When it comes to seafood, consumers are increasingly discerning and import markets are increasingly rigorous in requiring full transparency and traceability for products, with the goal of flushing illegal products, and products associated with human rights abuses, out of the system.

Bottom line: The ocean is a public domain, and fair and sustainable governance requires we all know what is occurring across 70% of the Earth’s surface.

From Talk to Action

Each iteration of the World Ocean Summit has advanced the discussion about the centrality of the ocean to human well-being and economic development. This year, WWF colleagues are on panels focused on the investment tools needed to build the sustainable blue economy I’ve outlined above, and how nature-based solutions can mitigate climate change.

Looking at the agenda, we clearly know the topics and issues we must tackle. When the week is over, I challenge the thousands of participants to turn a summit agenda into an action agenda, with people at the centre of the sustainable blue economy.

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

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