When I crossed the Atlantic on a cruise ship a few years ago, I spent a good deal of time looking at the sea. Just sea – for miles and miles and days and days. That and the odd seabird and the very occasional ship. But looking at the trajectory for ocean industries, ‘just sea’ could soon become a thing of the past.
Shipping traffic could double in the next 20 years, to respond to an increasingly demanding population and further globalisation; cruising is also on the rise. Fisheries are expecting to grow too, be it in a more modest way compared with aquaculture, which the World Bank predicts will almost double by 2030. Add to that newer industries like deep-sea mining, algae production, ocean cabling and renewables and the oceans start to look a lot busier. Not to mention building completely new island complexes in the South China Seas. We may even have geo-engineering in the oceans – iron filings sprinkled on the water’s surface to absorb carbon and stem ocean acidification.
Due to climate-change-driven melting of sea ice, the Arctic is also opening up. According to the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO), the numbers of vessels using the Arctic Northern Sea route increased from 4% to 71% between 2010 and 2013, with an expected 30-fold rise in this number by 2020, and the Polar Research Institute of China predicts around $500 billion of the nation’s trade value will pass through the arctic by 2020.
Right now, oceans are making a significant contribution to the economy. The WWF’s Principles for a Sustainable Blue Economy estimate that ocean industries – including coastal shipping and tourism – amount to $2.5 trillion each year, reflecting an overall asset base of at least $24 trillion, making the ocean the equivalent to the seventh largest economy in the world, and set to grow.
But this growth comes at a cost: 90% of global fish stocks are over-exploited; 50% of the world’s corals have disappeared; and there are ocean ‘dead zones’ covering an area the size of Italy. Ocean degradation will seriously impair the ability of the oceans to cover the resource deficit on land, not to mention the considerable loss of wildlife and ecosystems.
From this dramatic change comes risk and opportunity in equal measure. The sheer presence and activity in the ocean demands greater attention to ocean governance. Over the coming years, we are going to need concerted action governance and protection if we are to avert a new resource crisis in the oceans. Simon Walmsley of WWF does not think this is going to be easy: “The challenge is the ‘out of sight out of mind’ factor and the fact that ocean governance, at least in an holistic sense (including high seas/areas beyond national jurisdiction), is at best weak and without good governance, management does not stand a chance ... If the blue economy is to move in the direction of sustainability, then the industry sectors already involved like shipping and oil and gas, and newer sectors like deep-sea mining, need to either undertake a paradigm shift or plan to start the blank sheet with good governance and continue from there.”
There are a few examples of this new approach needed. The Polar Code, with Arctic countries and the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), requires cruise liners, oil tankers and bulk carrier ships to undergo voyage planning in order to protect marine life. Marine Protected Areas – hoped to cover 30% of the ocean by 2030 – also offer ways to manage our most vulnerable habitats better.
However, the level of governance needed will only be possible with real political will and commitment. Without that we will simply replicate the resource and ecological crisis on land. We can certainly anticipate a boom in the blue economy, but the extent to which that comes with a new resource crisis will depend on us.
Image credit: Nishanth Jois