In a healthy ocean, we’d be swimming in money

August 09, 2022 by Kaija Barisa


Viewed as a business, the ocean is grossly mismanaged. If decision-makers put marine health front and centre of their thinking, by 2050 a billion people could feel the financial benefits. As we launch a new series of reports, the experts and influencers of our Blue Economics team ask just how much the ocean is — and might be — worth

The ocean supports all life on Earth. It provides us with half of the oxygen we breathe and sequesters a third of all carbon dioxide emitted by human activities. It covers nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface and contains 97 per cent of its water. More than 90 per cent of excess heat is absorbed through the ocean, and it provides a habitat for approximately 15 per cent of all species.

On top of this, the seafood it provides is the primary source of protein for more than three billion people, and the marine fisheries that catch that food provide work for more than 200 million people. The low-lying coastal zones that border the ocean are currently home to 650 million people, and that figure is set to rise to one billion by 2050.

At the same time, sea levels are rising, coastal eutrophication is increasing, and fish stocks are in decline.

New shades of the Blue Economy
When we look beyond the intrinsic value of the ocean, the global economy is completely dependent on the functioning of the industries related to the ocean, referred to as the ‘Blue Economy’. Though the official definition of the Blue Economy varies, it is generally used to describe all economic activity in the ocean, such as fishing, shipping, and tourism. But more recent definitions also take into consideration the economic benefits related to non-marketable coastal protection, cultural values, biodiversity, and carbon storage.

To focus on the financial prosperity that a healthier ocean can deliver, Blue Marine Foundation has established Blue Economics, a dedicated team of analysts and creative thinkers. Our concern at Blue Economics is the ‘natural’ Blue Economy (ie not the first, ‘commercial’ part), with a focus on its more undervalued and underfunded aspects, such as the restoration and protection of coastal and marine ecosystems, and carbon storage.

We aim to put a value on newer aspects of the Blue Economy that are more difficult to define, so that they can be given the recognition they deserve in economic decision-making. Because if they are ignored, we are in big trouble. The stark truth is that our oceans are grossly mismanaged. To change this, we need to ask a question that at first may seem curious: how much is the ocean worth?

Invest $1 in ocean conservation — get $10 back
The Blue Economy is predicted to reach an annual value of USD 3 trillion by 2030, as well as employ 40 million people more than it did in 2010. This ‘value’ is measured through the ocean’s annual provision of goods and services, such as fishing and aquaculture; shipping, both coastal and oceanic; education and tourism; as well as marine biotechnology and carbon sequestration. In 2016 the World Wildlife Fund estimated the value of the ocean’s ‘total assets’ to be USD 24 trillion. It’s a significant number, but is still considered by some to be a gross underestimation. To highlight the enormous potential of the economic services that the ocean provides, a recent study indicated that for every dollar invested in marine conservation, a return of 10 dollars could be generated.

The goal we keep missing
Given this immense value and economic potential, it is surprising that on a global scale only three per cent of climate finance is dedicated to natural climate solutions, with less than one per cent going to the ocean. Of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were originally adopted as a ‘universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity’, SDG 14 (‘Life below water’) is one of the least funded.
The ocean needs about USD 175 billion per year for conservation and restoration work, and with current ocean investment estimated at USD 25 billion, there is a USD 150 billion gap to cover every year. To put this into context, global fishing subsidies alone receive USD 35 billion each year, which is 40 per cent more than the amount invested into protecting the ocean.

How to lose a trillion a year
If we do not actively protect the ocean and encourage the exploitation of its resources, the cost in economic, social, and environmental terms will be immense. As climate change worsens, the economic loss caused by rising seas and increasing storm levels could be between USD 200 billion and USD 1 trillion a year by 2100, due to human relocation, loss of land, and the need for artificial coastal protection. Of the ocean activities that contribute USD 2.3 trillion every year to the global economy, 70 per cent rely on a healthy ocean. The continued exploitation and destruction of ocean and coastal ecosystems can cause significant harm to major industry, to food security, the protection of coastal communities, and economic development.

It goes almost without saying that the ocean is immeasurably valuable in ways that monetary figures alone cannot capture. However, putting a number on the value of nature allows for a standardised framework to develop sustainable economic models, and for its inclusion in public and private sector policy and decision making.

Over the next two months our Blue Economics briefings will be tackling the gross mismanagement of the ocean, and highlighting the cost to people, to wildlife, and the climate. We’ll look at how we overpay for overfishing, and how to finance ocean protection; subsidies and funding for small- and large-scale businesses; nitrates and biodiversity; the golden gift of Blue Carbon. And finally what you can do to change the way the ocean is managed.

The challenge facing us now is how to address the fundamental problem in our economic system: there’s more money in exploitation than there is in protection. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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