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Is the Promise of "Blue Growth" too Good to be Blue?

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Despite aspirations for an expanded, sustainable ocean economy that delivers "blue prosperity", proponents of "blue growth" have a lot more to consider if they're to deliver on their promise.

"Polar circles" for fish farming in Fujian Province, China

For coastal states, buzz-phrases like "blue economy", "ocean economy", "blue growth", "blue new deal", and "blue prosperity" are all the rage. The fundamental idea is that, with our space on land filling up, our often unplanned, underdeveloped marine spaces can be a new playground for economic opportunity. Naturally, governments promise that sustainability will be paramount.

Four recent articles present new considerations for and highlight salient risks to the development of such a sustainable blue economy. These papers are all highly informative in their own right, and I encourage you to take the time to read them. Taken together, they illustrate just how many gray zones there can be in the quest for blue growth.

National plans for regional spaces

At the macro-level, planning for the blue economy is primarily a national endeavor. In areas like the Caribbean, Mediterranean, West Africa and South East Asia, dozens of states may share a piece of what is effectively the same ecosystem. Countries in close proximity to one another are unlikely to be achieve their anticipated blue growth without collaboration and maximizing synergies. Nowhere is this more critical than in the designation of marine protected areas. Sala et al. (2021) find that "a globally coordinated effort could achieve 90% of the maximum possible biodiversity benefit with less than half the ocean area of a protection strategy that is based solely on national priorities (21% versus 44% of the ocean, respectively)." This is a big deal.

Expanding MPAs and restoring marine habitats is a prerequisite for blue prosperity. Any blue economy plan missing this should go back to the drawing board. But for those that do understand the need for protection and restoration, they would be wise to consider the efficiencies gained by aligning their planning with neighbor states. According the findings in Sala et al. (2021), such foresight could drastically lower the needed scale of no-take zones, while simultaneously protecting carbon stocks and boosting fisheries output. That's the kind of win most countries can't afford to ignore.

Back within the scope of national jurisdiction, new research into the "enabling conditions" for a viable blue economy reveals the broad variations in countries' "blue economy capacity" (Cisneros-Montemayor et al. 2021). The authors offer a new multi-indicator framework for assessing this capacity.

Multi-dimensional framework for assessing blue economy capacity using cross-sectoral indicators.
Reprinted from Cisneros-Montemayor et al. 2021

NGOs along with western governments and their development agencies would be wise to incorporate such wholistic considerations in their recommendations for using blue growth as a tool for sustainable development. What was particularly concerning, and perhaps obvious, is that "the main contributors to differences in blue economy capacity...were human rights (12%), national stability (11%), corruption (11%), and mariculture potential (10%)" (Idem). These results are problematic for blue growth proponents because they indicate that, in many jurisdictions, the pathway to a viable blue economy may hinge on governance factors operating far beyond the the maritime realm.

Blue prosperity for whom?

There is a need to go even further through adopting an explicit social justice - or ‘blue justice’ - framing in all policies and decision-making processes related to the ocean economy. (Bennett et al. 2021)

National or even continental (in the case of the EU) blue growth strategies are typically implemented at the lowest jurisdictional unit (or one or two levels higher). However, that by no means guarantees that finer scale implementation will generate equitable outcomes. Bennett et al. (2021) recently identified 10 key risks to "blue growth":

  1. Dispossession, displacement and ocean grabbing;

  2. Environmental justice concerns from pollution and waste;

  3. Environmental degradation and reduction of availability of ecosystem services;

  4. Livelihood impacts for small-scale fishers;

  5. Lost access to marine resources needed for food security and well- being;

  6. Inequitable distribution of economic benefits;

  7. Social and cultural impacts of ocean development;

  8. Marginalization of women;

  9. Human and Indigenous rights abuses; and

  10. Exclusion from decision-making and governance.

For thorough context on each of the 10 risks to blue growth, check out the full paper in Marine Policy.

I would also add "the general absence of multi-use considerations in marine spatial planning". Sala et al. (2021) write that, "focusing on a single objective in a multi-use ocean often results in strong trade-offs that hinder real-world conservation action." The prevailing methodologies for marine spatial planning, touted as the mechanism for carefully zoning the coastal waters, almost universally limit areas to a single industry. This is often done with the rational aim of reducing conflict. Fishing here, aquaculture there, wind farms over there.

However, governments need to be flexible in ensuring that it's legally and administratively possible to give multiple consents within a given area. For example, allowing aquaculture or artificial reefs to be sited within an offshore wind farm. Or, as Cisneros-Montemayor et al. (2021) write, "well planned blue carbon sites could simultaneously contribute to carbon sequestration, habitat protection, artisanal fisheries and ecotourism." Industries likewise need to accelerate cross-sector projects and collaborations, to date, most such initiatives are driven by NGOs and academic institutions. Government can play a role in prioritizing "mixed-use" development in coastal space, just like many government do in their cities. In a future post, I'll delve more into how China is putting this into practice through aqua-tourism.

Lastly, proponents of blue growth must realize that the state of the ocean economy is not simply a reflection of ocean sector management. Ocean ecosystems and ocean industries are heavily influenced by terrestrial drivers. These include:

  • Eutrophication and dead zones driven by agricultural runoff

  • Pressures from excessive tourism (as experienced in Venice and Bali) which can cripple local infrastructure and amplify climate threats

  • Urbanization driven by rural flight (and it's many knock-on effects)

  • The downstream consequences of all manner of pollutants (plastic included) making their way to sea from their inland origins.

Without the inclusion and consideration of upstream activities, the best laid plans for the blue economy will be greatly hindered.

Overall, the authors seek to provoke a fundamental rethinking of what we as blue economy practitioners are seeking to "grow". I fully concur that we must center our efforts on a definition of growth that seeks an increase in ecosystem functioning, expansion of wellbeing (nutritionally, economically, culturally, emotionally), and a widening of opportunity for all. Juxtaposed to the prevailing GDP-defined expansion of economic exploitation, business "innovation", and profit. The management of this more wholistic growth must also be guided by an inclusive, bottom-up approach that elevates the voices of the marginalized and actively seeks just outcomes as opposed to merely avoiding or mitigating unjust ones.

Blue Foods

Given my particular interest in the fisheries and aquaculture elements of the blue economy, I found it notable that all four papers gave special attention to risks to small-scale fisheries and "blue food" production. The food provisioning services of marine environments are arguably their most important. They provide food and jobs for billions in the "tropical majority". Many places have yet to fully develop comprehensive blue growth strategies. To some, though, it is alarming that trendsetters like the European Union have focused the food production element of their blue growth strategy almost exclusively on mariculture and scaled up production.

Increased food production does not automatically lead to reduced hunger and malnutrition.
Reprinted from Farmery et al. (2021)

Farmery et al. (2021) focus their paper entirely on the potential downside risk for small-scale fisheries and nutrition in coastal communities that could result from this production oriented focus. And all four papers concur that current trends in blue growth strategy may undermine food security and livelihoods. Expansion of MPAs could be used to benefit small-scale fisheries or it could be used to displace them (Sala et al. 2021). The prioritization of emerging sectors over local livelihoods could legalize claims to marine space once utilized for local livelihoods (Cisneros-Montemayor et al. 2021; Bennett et al. 2021 ). Increased food production (particularly for international trade) could actually decrease nutrition and undermine local food security (Farmery et al. 2021; illustrated above).

Hopefully the ongoing Blue Foods Assessment, a major global research initiative focused on ocean food systems, will generate the needed high-profile recognition for a systems-based approach to managing marine food provisioning services.

"Recognizing and including a wide range of stakeholders and perspectives is a foundational step in this process of transformation" Cisneros-Montemayor et al. (2021).

Ultimately, we aren't doing enough to ground blue growth strategies in systems-based, blue justice. Participatory, human centered design must be included from the goal setting stage, not only the implementation stage where it is often sought. Such an inclusive process might better prioritize the needs for local investment, the protection of cultural assets or customs, and the maintenance of property or use rights.

I genuinely believe that the ocean economy offers one of the best opportunities for increased food production, enhanced global nutrition, renewable energy production, and so much more. However, governments and blue economy actors must be careful. Sustainability, justice, and cooperation must be paramount or the promise of blue prosperity will surely be broken.


Bennett, N. J., Blythe, J., White, C. S., & Campero, C. (2021). Blue growth and blue justice: Ten risks and solutions for the ocean economy. Marine Policy, 125, 104387.

Cisneros-Montemayor, A. M., Moreno-Báez, M., Reygondeau, G., Cheung, W. W., Crosman, K. M., González-Espinosa, P. C., ... & Ota, Y. (2021). Enabling conditions for an equitable and sustainable blue economy. Nature, 591(7850), 396-401.

Farmery, A. K., Allison, E. H., Andrew, N. L., Troell, M., Voyer, M., Campbell, B., ... & Steenbergen, D. (2021). Blind spots in visions of a “blue economy” could undermine the ocean's contribution to eliminating hunger and malnutrition. One Earth, 4(1), 28-38.

Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D., Cabral, R. B., Atwood, T. B., Auber, A., ... & Lubchenco, J. (2021). Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature, 1-6.

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