Tundi’s Take: Is blue growth taking us where we want to go?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

Blue growth – the strategy to promote economic and employment growth from the oceans, seas and coasts – is alluring. But are we really ready for where that growth could take us?

One direction we could be headed is a future where ocean values are recognized and preserved for the widest array of beneficiaries possible – both human and non-human. But blue growth’s emphasis on economic values may instead be spurring a gold rush mentality that threatens the very ecosystems that provide the goods and services on which it depends.

Is blue growth sustainable?

There are two dimensions to this question, and they are related. First is the issue of equity. Policies and plans that boast the ‘unlocking of the blue growth potential’ not only aim to maximize ocean use, they may in fact favor new uses over old. Powerful commercial interests may hold sway over decisions about marine resource allocation and access to ocean space. The traditional user, the small-scale enterprise, and the non-consumptive values – especially those that don't generate revenue – seem very vulnerable in this blue gold rush. This should lead us to question whether it is socially sustainable for countries to develop policies that favor powerful commercial interests over those of their citizens more broadly.

Second is the issue of whether oceans will be able to withstand the increased pressures that expanded and intensified uses will bring. This is especially true in light of the shifting ecosystem and eco-social dynamics that global climate change will be expected to bring. Decisions made about resource allocation, based on what is available to use today, are unlikely to lead to sustainable strategies for use in the future. And when conservation is just one of many specific interests at the bargaining table rather than the foundation for sustainable use, the blue economy risks becoming a boom then bust economy. A recent study by Tessa Mazor and colleagues (2014) found that marine planning that multiplies the number of uses in a particular place (in this case a part of the Mediterranean Sea) are not able to meet conservation outcomes as easily and have greater opportunity cost. And with species, habitats, and ecosystems threatened, both economic and social sustainability will be unattainable.

Return to the plantation era?

At the Caribbean Coastal Conference held in Barbados last month, Dr. Leonard Nurse of the University of the West Indies rattled the assembled government, donor, and civil society participants when he expressed his fear that boosting the blue economy could in fact lead to a return to the plantation era – with profits reaped by large multinational corporations and benefits flowing out of small island states faster than the trade winds.

Change from the status quo is certainly needed as ocean ecosystems steadily deteriorate. But I’d caution again that we need to be very careful that blue growth leads us to where we want to go – and not to points of no return with extinctions of species, extinctions of ways of life, and societies with even greater inequities than exist today.

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It is always good to be careful about development --on land, coast, or in the sea-- to ensure it is not a plantation style land-grab. Do data for a new blue plantation era exist? On land, palm oil comes to mind, but in terms of the blue economy..? Understandably, such concerns are (by definition) concerning, and send shudders through an audience that is staking its hopes on development of a maritime economy. But where are the data to support this accusation? Without evidence, this is basically fear mongering. Indeed, I see some evidence that the opposite is occurring; e.g. Pacific Island Countries beginning to gain greater domestic control of what have up to now largely foreign-controlled tuna fisheries in their own EEZ waters.

Again, I fully agree that any development (green or blue or... purple) needs to be done carefully, with as few irreversible decisions as possible. But, I remain to be convinced that the Blue Economy, and the focus it engenders, is not taking us in a better direction than the status quo of more or less isolated, un-integrated maritime development, interrupted by the occasional development of an MPA (if we are lucky), while corrupt officials of some national governments continue to quietly fill their bank accounts (even selling entire islands at fire sale prices --e.g. in a particularly egregious Island State in the eastern Indian Ocean). I, for one, personally welcome the greater attention on the oceans and the need for a multi-sectoral public process. That is the basis of the Blue Economy --imperfect, certainly, but much better than the status quo. I am pleased that commentators like Tundi raise concerns and urge caution, but a bit alarmed that the implication is that we should stop talking about the economic values of the oceans... 

-Jeff Ardron

PS: I return to my previous response to Tundi's previous blog: If not Blue, what colour should the marine economy be? i.e, what is the alternative?

As ever, an interesting take, Tundi. The discussion paper (open access) and related series of case study papers (list with links) mentioned in this issue may be of interest to readers, as it includes case studies and related discussions on how MSP is increasingly focused only on blue growth, good environmental status obligations being sidelined if not ignored. Jeff - here's some evidence, at least from an EU perspective. You surprise me in your accusation that related concerns basically represent fear mongering (do you now work for DG MARE?), the discussion paper and case studies mentioned should be of particular interest to you as they include evidence that concerns about blue growth dominated MSP represent reality rather than fears.

Dear Jeff and Peter, 

I'm delighted that the Tundi's Take had the intended effect - which is to spur conversations on the implications of blue growth, and the gold rush that it seems to have fomented.

Jeff you've called this fear mongering, claiming I present no evidence to back up what you call accusations. Does reporting on someone's (in this case Leonard Nurse's - a person very highly respected as a careful scientist and rational thinker) legitimate fear make this fear mongering? His fear, expressed by many others also, is based not on events but on trends. For evidence of a return to plantation era conditions in the Caribbean, one only needs to look at the funds flows around large tourism resort and cruise ship development to see the tracks have already been laid. There is a plethora of studies showing that profits in these sectors flow largely out of country when the development is undertaken by large international companies. In many cases these companies not only reap the benefits of well-managed nature without having to invest in it, they also inhibit local business development while passing on the negative externalities to those local communities. And here is some true fear mongering - what I see unfolding in the world is the Millennium Assessment scenario where behemoth corporations become more powerful in influencing land and ocean use than governments, while poverty continues to grow and one after an another SDG is missed, yet again. This despite the very real (but sadly very small) success stories with MPAs and community-based management...

I'm glad Peter provides case studies that present a wide range of perspectives on how blue growth and MSP is unfolding in the EU. These, and in fact all legitimate studies, rely on the science of ecosystem service assessment and appraisals of ocean values (economic and non-economic) - even if not explicitly. I didn't mean to imply that we should turn away from valuation or from raising public awareness about ocean values and the potential for harnessing the Blue Economy for good. But I stand by my assertion that unless we are very careful to steer development in a truly sustainable direction - both environmentally and socially - blue growth may take us to a very scary future indeed.

Hi Tundi and Peter,

Thanks for the conversation. First of all, I must apologise for using the term "fear mongering." I take it back. I did not mean to insult or otherwise question the character of people involved. It has, in my view, also misdirected the conversation. Sorry.

I wanted to bring back into the discussion to the idea that Blue Economy (Blue Growth and also MSP,--though these terms are not the same thing in my mind) do not occur in a vacuum. There is the business-as-usual alternative that has been occurring for many years. Therefore, isolated examples of poor marine planning should be put back into context: does MSP, Blue Economy, and other ocean-specific policy development improve or worsen the situation, as compared to the status quo? That is the question in my mnd. There is no doubt that poor examples of marine planning abound... sadly. However, is some planning better or worse than none?

I will not here try to evaluate the extent of the corporate take-over of the oceans that Tundi alludes to. But assuming for the moment it is true in some places, would it not presumably be slowed down, and perhaps even re-directed, were it to be subjected to a transparent and participatory planning process..? I believe that Peter is cynical of such processes, ok fair enough. There is good reason to be so, given what has sometimes happened as a result. But again, I find it difficult to imagine any better approach. Transparent and participatory process at least gives one the hope of some accountability --not guaranteed, no, but at least a glimmer of hope...

If not blue, then what colour should the ocean economy be? (More than a play on words, what I am getting at here is that valuing the ocean in a holistic way, by linking it to sustainable economic development, is better than not doing that; i.e. the normal brown (environmentally harmful) and black (illegal, unreported, unregulated) economies.)

All the best,


"I believe that Peter is cynical of such processes" - cheap call, Jeff, like the 'fear mongering' jibe. 'A cynic is what an optimist calls a realist'! These points aside, let's assume that the blue economy will generally be more focused on growth and that related green sectoral interventions will often be necessary to promote biodiversity conservation, resource sustainability, etc. Holistic MSP that balances ecosystem-based and blue growth priorities on a cross-sectorally optimum basis is a nice idea in theory, particularly for modelers with their algorithms and cost-benefit optimality curves but realities indicate this is an unrealistic expectation, particularly in these neo-liberalised post-crash times.

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