Blue Growth: Conceptualizing Sustainable Development of Marine Environments

On Sunday the 19th of February, Nordforsk-funded project GreenMAR had a Symposium at the AAAS meeting in Boston, MA. The AAAS meeting is arranged by the journal Science, and is a highly influential and high profile scientific meeting where thousands of scientists as well as policymakers, educators and journalists come together to discuss the most recent scientific findings. The theme of the 2017 meeting was “Serving Society through Science Policy,” which means focusing on how policies can come to reflect the best available scientific knowledge. This topic is near and dear to our hearts in GreenMAR, as our project is about the fundamental challenge of green (/blue) growth, and how to use our renewable natural resources more efficiently while ensuring that the ecosystems retain their functionality. As such we applied to have a Symposium at the AAAS meeting which we called “Blue Growth: Conceptualizing Sustainable Development of Marine Environments.”

GreenMar Session Photo

International governance of natural resource use is increasingly based around a concept called “blue growth.” Despite use by multiple and diverse stakeholders, the term has no widely agreed on definition. Instead, it embodies vastly different meanings and approaches depending on the social contexts in which it is used. The potential for miscommunication is great, as stakeholders may be using the same term but unknowingly perceiving the concept differently, leading to potential misunderstandings and poor governance outcomes. This session brings together speakers to focus on better understanding the definition, dynamics, and mechanisms of blue growth. Blue growth has not been discussed and analyzed in a comprehensive fashion in any journals or reports. This session provides a novel, comprehensive synthesis to help scientists, policymakers, and other stakeholders better understand this timely concept and avoid the pitfalls associated with multiple definitions and potential miscommunication.
We had three impressive speakers, all of whom work on these topics, and all three gave us a lot to think about on the topic.

Our session was organized by Anne Marie Eikeset, the PI of GreenMAR, and myself, Anna Mazzarella, the Scientific Coordinator of GreenMAR. Our moderator and co-organizer was Simon A. Levin, Distinguished Professor at Princeton University, and our speakers were Jane Lubchenco, Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University, Scott Barrett, Professor at Columbia University, and Oran Young, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist and marine ecologist, has a long history of working on sustainable use of our oceans. She served as the Administrator of NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) from 2009-2012 and is currently serving as the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere for the United States government. NOAA is the USA’s top science agency for climate, weather and oceans. Dr. Lubchenco’s focus during her talk was “how to use the ocean without using it up”. The ocean is an amazing source of economic opportunities as well as food, but there are many environmental challenges involved in using these resources sustainably.  In Dr. Lubchenco’s presentation, called “Getting Incentives Right for Sustained Blue Growth: Science and Opportunity”, she said that “blue growth” refers to long-term strategies for supporting sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors. In order to achieve long-term blue growth, we must align economic and social incentives (also known as social norms) with the desired environmental outcomes. This will be in the best interests of the oceans and our societies that depend on these marine resources. Smart use of the oceans, not just increased use of the oceans, is essential for future economic prosperity for the 200 million people whose employment is directly or indirectly based on the world’s oceans, as well as food security for the 3 billion people for whom the world’s oceans are a main source of protein. In total the world’s oceans contribute $270 billion to the planet’s GDP. We must, on a global level, change our societal norms to align them with sustainability in order to save this critical source of food and productivity.

Scott Barrett, Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University, says that “Blue Growth” must, first and foremost, come from reducing exploitation. He agreed with Dr. Lubchenco that the incentives we have for using the ocean are wrong – this is why overuse has been a problem. Dr. Barrett thinks that the way to correct incentives is to use institutions, or international laws and treaties. However there are many different plans that have been proposed in order to correct the incentives and move into sustainable use of the oceans, so we must find a way to tell which of these proposals will do the most good. There is a need to analyze the proposals empirically in order to test which ones are best, and this work is underway by many researchers across the world. Yet the data shows that the models being used to evaluate these plans are uncertain in their predictions, which means we are actually unsure whether any of the different proposals would be helpful at all. But in essence, overfishing is due to competition, and the behavior of the states themselves is the problem, and we must find a solution.

Oran Young, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Intuitional and International Governance at the University of California, Santa Barbara, highlights in his talk that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to attaining sustainability. In his interdisciplinary work, he has noticed that very often researchers coming from the social sciences disagree with those coming from economics when it comes to fishing quotas. Economists tend to focus on the positive affects they have on fish stocks, whereas social scientists tend to focus on the negative impacts than are felt by the coastal communities. And really, both are correct. Instead of a one-size-fits all solution, we need “Intuitional Diagnostics” to see which particular fix we need for the specific problem at hand. We are now in the Anthropocene, and are subject to an incredibly high degree of connectivity compared to the recent past. We need agility in our institutions in order to achieve sustainable development. We also must address the drivers that are outside the marine systems.

Another key part of achieving sustainable fisheries is the involvement of the fishermen and seafood companies. In her time at NOAA, Dr. Lubchenco oversaw the development of a new quota system for the west coast of the USA. This time, the fishermen themselves were directly involved in creating the plan, with the goal being to rebuild the fisheries. The quotas were set using only scientific data. After this plan was implimented, the number of stocks in the area that were overfished went from 92 in the year 2000, to only 38 in 2015. Stocks that were rebuilt went from 0 to 39 in that same time frame. These astoundingly successful numbers are certainly in part due to the involvement of the fishermen in the fight for sustainability on the national level.
Dr. Lubchenco also told us about the SONEVA dialogue, which was initiated by researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Center who did an analysis of the seafood industry and found just a few companies have the highest global impact. They asked the CEOs of these companies if they had much information about climate change, and the CEOs indicated they did not, and would be interested in knowing more and having a dialogue with the scientists. After the meeting and dialogue between the CEOs and the scientists took place in November of 2016, the CEOs made a public statement (available at that outlines their concern about the state of the ocean both now and in the future, and identifies some areas that they plan to address together as a group with the goal to actively contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For a group of CEOs working in the same industry to commit to working together to play a leading role in sustainability issues is unprecedented and extraordinary, and gives us all hope that the future of our oceans can be sustainable.

Video archives of selected parts of the meeting are available here.