Ocean Resilience and the Blue Economy

How to Sustain Ecological Resistance

When we talk about ocean resilience, we are talking essentially about capacity to heal and sustain ocean systems over time when interrupted by natural events such as extreme weather, flooding, and earthquakes that have throughout history damaged coastal areas and habitats, but have been able to recover through natural processes of restoration and sustainability. The challenge, as we have discussed so often is the intrusion of human activities such as nearshore development, agricultural run-off, industrial pollution, filling and dredging and port construction — all of which disturb the natural order of things and make significant, detrimental changes to the environment not easily renewed or repaired. Some observers estimate that over 40 percent of marine ecosystems — coral reefs, mangrove forests, rocky shorelines, and seagrass beds — have been severely impacted due to such land-based activities aggravated by relentless, illegal fishing.

How then can ecological resilience be sustained? And given the documented consequence on social resilience, how really can we expect to redress and progress out of a global situation that may now be beyond repair? An article by Dr. Anjani Ganase, an ecologist at the Institute of Marine Affairs in Tobago, suggests various tools with which to confront the challenge: coastal zone management, upstream pollution reduction and controls, marine spatial planning, and other active restoration programs, fisheries policies, re-purposing of fishers to aquaculture, and other good ideas that can help, even only to diminish the negative decline and deterioration and define a way forward that heals both the natural wounds as well as the community wounds that people in typically poor and undeveloped places have endured. Tourism has helped, at least in terms of employment and tax-revenue, but impacts of beach-front construction, over-consumption of limited resources, crime, and health issues suggest a false economy.

Further, the financial forces may now be even more destructive and enduring than we fully understand. Last week, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis released its first official Marine Economy Account, a satellite analysis of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is the baseline data against which the American economy is measured, understood, and adjusted as necessary. The report indicates that the marine economy, touted as the blue economy, represents 1.9% or $397 billion, of current-dollar GDP in 2019, and grew at an annual rate of 4.2%, seriously increased over the 2014–2018 analyses. For the first time, the report looks at the marine economy by industry categories: offshore minerals, real estate, rental, and leasing; transportation, sight-seeing and ferries, ship-building, and warehousing; tourism, recreation, accommodation and food services, and national defense and public administration. The geographic scope includes the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans within the US Exclusive Economic Zone (up to 200 miles offshore), as well as marginal seas and other discrete ocean bodies within the US.

It is the scale of this enterprise that matters. The marine economy GDP is small in the context of the overall US economy, but it is enormous compared to that of a Caribbean island state. External economic factors create small variances, even to include the devastation of a major coastal hurricane, consequence that does not set the complete economy off-kilter with serious, but limited social effect, typically addressed by large federal funds and other resources to mediate and compensate for the damage. Such an event in Tobago, or Puerto Rico, results in a very different scenario: widespread physical destruction, destroyed services, disrupted employment, and little to no funds available to address social needs or the cost of restoration.

Resilience, then, is a personal matter, not a statistical report, but a set of circumstances measured by loss, the possibility of renewal, and the outcomes experienced on the ground and alongshore. That is no longer a hypothetical event, but a recurring one worldwide, where what we have done and to what we have done it, can no longer protect us from not just natural events, but man-made ones too.

Scale is also a measure of time. How much time do we have to take steps to plan and protect from the mistakes of our own making? How much time do we have with no significant national ocean policy in the United States to mitigate and change the structures and behaviors that have created the problem? How would it be if that 1.9% of Gross Domestic Product was lost? What would happen if all that value was lost to us in a global economy where ocean environments and financial connections, the maritime goods and services that are essential to our health and welfare every day, were no longer available? How resilient, then, would we be? How resilient, then, could we be?

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.