The Blue Economy: Harnessing the Ocean’s Resources for Sustainable Development

Plastic pollution, overfishing and maritime threats could endanger efforts to harnessing the ocean’s resources for sustainable development. Dan Watson speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about developing solutions to these challenges.

Interview Updated 24 July 2023 Published 1 June 2018 6 minute READ

Dan Watson

Founder and CEO, SafetyNet Technologies (SNTech)

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

The world is facing a number of land-based challenges, including a growing human population, and scientists have warned that land degradation could displace at least 50 million people by 2050. What is the role of the blue economy as the pressure for land-based resources increases?

The blue economy is starting to get a lot of attention because land-based challenges are becoming more pressing. People are starting to look towards the large portion of the Earth that’s covered by water, that previously seemed inhospitable and inaccessible, and they’re beginning to build the technology that will help us to understand it better.

But how can we use the resources that are in our oceans with a more sustainable approach that we didn’t have with our land-based resources? It’s a second chance for us to do things properly. The ocean is an abundant resource and therefore has the potential to expand existing sectors as well as nurture entirely new ones if we manage it appropriately.

The threats facing the ocean have been brought into the spotlight recently, in part, because of programmes like the BBC’s Blue Planet. How is plastic pollution and overfishing threatening the ocean and how are governments and businesses developing solutions to these challenges?

Plastic pollution is a massive problem with over five trillion items of plastic currently littering our oceans. If you look at the scale of the problem – the amount of plastic that goes into our ocean every year which is approximately 12 million tonnes – most reports suggest it’s growing. Blue Planet, and successful campaigns, have been instrumental in bringing this issue into the public consciousness and now there is innovative technology emerging too. 

With overfishing, the improvement of ocean data collection is helping experts to understand the scale of the problem better which can hopefully benefit government policymaking. Positive steps are currently being taken to address overfishing in Europe, Indonesia and the US but there are still issues where the data available isn’t able to provide all of the answers policymakers need. For example, the effects small vessels have on fish stocks are still unclear because these catches are going largely unreported. While they are not necessarily illegal, they are not accounted for in terms of fishing quotas, therefore understanding all of the elements in order to get a full picture of what is really going on in the ocean space is important.

Businesses are trying to understand the business cases around improving ocean data too but there are few concrete examples that they are able to make to increase investment in this area although that is starting to change.

It’s important that we develop a sustainable approach to our ocean because it will yield better resources for us in the future. We can’t afford to pollute it with materials such as plastics, or by irresponsibly removing resources from the ocean space, whether that’s fish, minerals or aggregates like sand. With better technology and data, we can start to address these problems by understanding their scale and then inventing appropriate solutions.

We, at SafetyNet Technologies (SNTech), focus on addressing the issue of unsustainable fishing practices. Globally, 1 in 10 fish caught is not the species targeted by the fisherman and this ‘by-catch’ is often thrown back into the ocean – usually dead – where it becomes waste. This translates to billions of marine organisms and billions of dollars wasted each year. Pisces, a light-emitting electronic device designed by SNTech, can be used to attract and repel different marine species based on their reaction to light, therefore lowering by-catch by up to 90 per cent and lessening the problem of overfishing.

Tackling by-catch is becoming increasingly important because of stricter fishing regulations and punishments for unsustainable fishing practices. But some of the current technology trying to reduce by-catch in commercial fishing can cost up to a million euros and weigh half a tonne. It can therefore be hard for businesses to justify investing in technology when it’s hard to recover the costs. As a result, businesses are starting to understand that they have to design scalable, affordable and sustainable technology.

India, Somalia, Nigeria and the Seychelles are some of the countries investing in developing a blue economy and, recently, the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee announced an inquiry into developing sustainable seas. Which governments are leading the way and which governments are falling behind? 

The EU is taking a strong lead in terms of research and innovation. They have a number of high-profile research funding calls which have enabled people to start looking at these problems and design and build technology as part of their Horizon 2020 programme. There is also a lot around aquaculture, coastal tourism and ocean energy as part of their ‘Blue Growth’ strategy.

Indonesia has also gotten tough with its regulations around fishing, but it’s early days, and technology implementation and management will be key to ensuring that these regulations are as effective as possible. The Indonesian government has become an example for a lot of renaissance work around fisheries, such as the improved monitoring of fish catches in the supply chain and also around vessel monitoring in order to enable the government to uphold its ban on foreign vessels fishing in Indonesian waters, as well as around illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

Interestingly, the Thai government is now upgrading their fisheries in response to a ‘yellow card’ issued by the EU as a result of their poor IUU record so now they are selling to European member states.

In 2017, the US also reformed its import laws in order to better understand where the fish they are buying is coming from. The state of Oregon also recently passed the first legislation mandating the use of light-emitting devices for shrimp in order to lower the by-catch of endangered eulachon fish. That’s the first state-level law that specifically says fishermen have to use a technology like our Pisces device in order to be allowed to conduct fishing operations.

In the UK, fisheries played a large part in the Brexit vote, at least emotionally. If the UK is going to take an independent approach to fisheries post-Brexit, it has a chance to do things differently.

The UK environment secretary, Michael Gove, says he is on the side of fishermen, however, as a small company working in this space, we haven’t seen a lot of support from the top level. We’ve seen more support from the UK Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) in terms of technology development and also from Marine Scotland.

Post-Brexit, I would like to see the UK government do more to support innovative fishing practices even though the UK market is so small compared to the global market. The UK has the resources to become a leader in sustainable fishing technology and could become like Norway who have been able to make their own fishing laws and have been progressive in terms of discard bans and investing in new technology that enable sustainable stock management.

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Fishermen in boats passing buoys in the port of Gouqi Island, Zhejiang province, China. Photo: Getty Images.

Fishermen in boats passing buoys in the port of Gouqi Island, Zhejiang province, China. Photo: Getty Images.

— Fishermen in boats passing buoys in the port of Gouqi Island, Zhejiang province, China. Photo: Getty Images.

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The global Sustainable Development Goals outline harnessing marine resources for sustainable development but Poland has recently been granted a licence for deep sea mining in the Atlantic Ocean which scientists are concerned could endanger marine life.

What are the risks of opening up the ocean to economic development? Could we see a race to exploit it as we have with other natural resources? If so, what safeguards would need to be put in place to avoid it being used unsustainably?

When you look at our land-based resources, we have trouble with monitoring deforestation in rainforests and damage from both legal and illegal mining. When you move out to the ocean, it becomes an issue of being out of sight and out of mind. Scientists are currently having a tough time monitoring the fishing fleets that are removing fish from the oceans on the water’s surface, and then if you move underwater where only the technologically-advanced companies are able to get to, it becomes even more difficult to monitor how they are operating.

So there are going to have to be some clever ways of understanding the amount of extraction that is going on in relation to deep sea mining and the potential environmental impact it’s having. Unless you get companies, or even countries, spying on each other to make sure they are doing it sustainably – which hasn’t worked in the past in logging and mining – it’s uncertain how would be the best way to do this. But there might be some interesting solutions out there, and if not yet, there may be a market emerging.

How could territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, and maritime threats, such as piracy, affect national and international efforts to sustainably developing the ocean?

The ocean is huge and development is taking place predominantly around the coasts where there is more human access for piracy, terrorism and even random acts of vandalism. New infrastructure will therefore have to be protectable. Piracy is happening everywhere, but it’s not new, and the shipping industry has found ways to mitigate their impact through increased security and surveillance.

Interestingly, the fish stocks around Somalia’s coastline are currently extremely healthy and it is thought that it might be as a result of piracy scaring away the fishermen. But Somalia now has a chance to harvest those stocks sustainably and the Somalian government can look at using the blue economy to fuel its economic growth.

In terms of the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, as well as other state-level issues, it can be advantageous or disadvantageous for businesses depending on which way the outcome of a dispute goes. However, I think if the prize is big enough, businesses will find solutions to any obstacles. Whether it’s piracy or state-level issues, lots of different actors are going to be jockeying for the ocean’s resources.

The ocean covers almost three quarters of the Earth’s surface and billions of people globally depend on it for their livelihoods. What, in your opinion, are the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead? 

There are lots of opportunities to learn more about what the ocean can yield whether that’s from satellite imagery, ocean sensors or human observation. Building up investment in order to develop those ideas is, however, a big challenge because the ocean is so far removed from many people’s lives.

There’s also the challenge of being responsible, for example around extraction, plastics, fishing, chemicals and even where people are growing things in the oceans, like fish or kelp. The ocean is a resource that is going to have to be harnessed sustainably.

One of the biggest challenges of all will be monitoring. People who want to hide something have found effective ways of doing so and that’s going to continue as we move further into the ocean space. What has changed recently has been the increasing focus on our ocean, but how long that lasts, is unclear. Therefore maintaining public and political interest in our oceans, including justifying investing in it as a resource, will be critical.

Corals are dying, waters are warming and sea levels are rising. Ultimately, the ocean is our shared resource but time will tell whether it turns into our shared failure or the greatest comeback story humanity has ever staged.

Find out more by watching Reinventing the Plastic Bottle’ by the Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy at Chatham House.