A New Gold Rush Into the Blue Economy

At an ocean conference in China last October, renowned American oceanographer Sylvia Earle told participants that "we must think of taking care of the ocean as if our lives depended on it....because they do!"

Take California as an example. The Golden State boasts one of the world's richest marine ecosystems. Over 75 percent of Californians live in coastal communities and the beach culture is part of the region's much envied cultural identity. In 2008, the ocean economy accounted for $39 billion and provided at least 434,000 jobs.

On a global scale, the value of marine activities is estimated at 5% of global GDP, or between three and six trillion US dollars. More than 40% of the human population lives in the coastal zone, with projections that by 2025, this will reach 75%.

The ocean also supports industries such as oil and gas extraction, fisheries and aquaculture, marine and coastal tourism, among others. Ninety percent of all goods in the world are shipped by sea.

The Blue Economy is not some vast new frontier to be conquered or exploited. It already exists and contributes considerably to our overall economic and social well-being.

It's an important take-home message for those who attended the 2014 World Ocean Summit in San Francisco this week.

Rubbing shoulders with the scientists and oceanographers at the event are political decision makers and business leaders, who are key to the way the ocean should be developed, and protected.

They need to understand that a Gold Rush mentality is no way to manage a global resource upon which the future of the entire planet rests. Uncontrolled geo-engineering projects such as seeding the ocean to revive fish stocks, dumping industrial waste in sensitive marine environments, allowing unchecked oil and gas exploration or unregulated property development on vulnerable shorelines, for example, must simply not be allowed to happen.

We cannot do to the ocean what we have done to the land.

The ocean produces more than half the oxygen we breathe - or every second breath we take; it regulates our weather, provides 15% of the protein intake for over four billion people, it is an integral part of the water cycle; it has cushioned the blow of climate change by absorbing more than a third of the carbon that humans have emitted since the start of the industrial age, and storing more than 80% of the heat added to the global system.

But we have not been good stewards of this amazing resource.

The ocean is one of the Earth's most threatened ecosystems. It is suffering from acidification, and could be 150% more acidic by 2100. It is suffering from pollution, 80 % of which comes from land-based sources. Excessive nutrients from land-based activities have led to a dramatic rise in the number of dead zones in the ocean; there are currently 405 of these, covering an area the size of the United Kingdom. Invasive species are present and wreaking major damage in 80% of the world's 232 marine eco-regions. We are now living in one of the most rapid periods of extinction on record, as the biodiversity of the planet, including marine species is being seriously reduced.

Turning this situation around and developing the Blue Economy for the benefit of all remains possible, but it requires that we understand the value of the ocean, and the risks we face if we don't develop its resources responsibly and sustainably.

Achieving this means more research, better governance that includes all stake holders, and - especially - an integrated approach that links key issues and challenges across ecological, jurisdictional and political boundaries. It means fixing achievable goals such as implementing ocean acidification monitoring programs, targeting specific amounts of coastal/ marine areas for conservation, or taking steps to reduce the vulnerability of coastal populations through the establishment of early warning systems and investment in coastal adaptation plans to address climate change impacts.

It's not a simple task. There are many stakeholders, with many conflicting interests. Think of the demands of the fishing and tourism industries, or oil and gas companies seeking new fields. Satisfying these interests and safeguarding the ocean at the same time is a huge challenge that will require the active participation and cooperation of all.

This is why this Summit is particularly important. It's also why the ocean deserves special attention on the international community's post 2015 development agenda, which is currently being negotiated under the leadership of the United Nations.

Sylvia Earle is right. Our lives depend on a healthy ocean. It's part of the future we want.