“Blue growth” is fast becoming a fashionable term. Drawing on the concept of green growth, which describes how national or international strategies can achieve economic development by sustainably using natural resources, blue growth describes how investments in oceans can achieve the same goal.

Marine-based industries already contribute $4 trillion to the global economy, with plenty of opportunity for growth. The challenge is to manage that growth sustainably and equitably. Tied up in these discussions are issues related to food security and nutrition, livelihoods, climate change and recreational and cultural uses of the ocean.

There are, in essence, four dimensions to a blue growth strategy.

1. Preserve the oceans’ natural assets

The most obvious asset in the world’s blue economy is our fish stocks. Fisheries play a critical role in many economies as a source of food, nutrition and livelihoods, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable in the developing world. They also serve as an engine for economic growth: the global trade in wild-caught fish is currently valued at around $90 billion, and the catch sector directly employs around 40 million people, and many more are engaged in downstream activities.

Given these important contributions, it is imperative that we harvest fisheries at sustainable levels to ensure continuing supply. Establishing regulations and tackling illegal fishing are central to achieving this goal. Currently, it is estimated that 20% of marine catches are illegal. Working with the Metro Group and others, the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Oceans has helped foster initiatives to improve product traceability and transparency in fish supply chains to help address this challenge. Progress is encouraging, but further efforts are needed.

2. Improve our coastal environments

Ensuring the environmental quality of our coastal communities is key to people’s health and well-being. It is also vital for sustainable economic growth.

Rapid coastal development in many emerging economies often brings changing land use patterns, industrial development and increasing coastal populations. These, in turn, impose environmental pressures that can only be mitigated if local and national governments plan development effectively and invest appropriately.

Effective measures to treat sewage, manage industrial waste and agricultural run-off are key to a healthy ocean. Improving the water quality of rivers running to the sea through urban and industrial areas will be a particularly important element of any plan.

With coordinated action and innovation to manage coastal development, we can get it right. And this means more opportunities for ecotourism being realized and sustained as coastal water quality improves.

3. Capture marine-based economic opportunities

The shipping, oil and gas industries make up the bulk of the $4 trillion contribution to the global economy from marine-based industries. But there is considerable potential for the oceans to provide new opportunities for wealth generation.

Deepsea mining (DSM) is one such rapidly emerging opportunity. At present, however, regulatory frameworks for DSM are lacking or incomplete, and the economic benefits that can be derived are poorly understood. The environmental consequences of DSM also need to be better understood and included in regulatory frameworks. Through a combination of case studies and global multistakeholder dialogue, the Oceans GAC in partnership with the GAC on Responsible Mineral Resources Management is currently exploring options for fostering informed debate on this important topic.

4. Sustainably increase ocean productivity

Creating sustainable benefits from ocean productivity is core to blue growth. As global demand for fish increases and catches from wild-capture fisheries level off, marine farming is a significant area to explore. However, efforts to increase marine farming will only be successful if the demands they make on the environment are managed.

WorldFish and Conservation International have jointly researched the global environmental impacts of aquaculture. The challenge is to support governments and producers to improve policies and practices so that the environmental footprint grows at a very much lower rate than the expected growth in production. There has been considerable focus on reducing feed, energy, water use and waste production per unit of food produced at both farm and national levels.

Although freshwater aquaculture is currently the dominant source of farmed fish (about 70%) and is likely to remain so, mariculture has the potential to grow in many developing countries. Seaweed and shellfish culture have particular promise given their small environmental footprint. Blue growth is for all of us and it is encouraging that it is a priority for many governments and international agencies. There is a growing appetite for addressing the challenges facing our oceans. The Global Oceans Action Summit for Food Security and Blue Growth closed in April this year with a call for urgent coordinated action to restore the health of the world’s oceans and secure the long-term well-being and food security of a growing global population. At the Our Ocean Summit hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry in June, we witnessed commitments from government and private sources valued at more than $800 million to conserve the ocean and its resources for future generations.

Armed with an overview of the issues, the challenge is to support governments and other stakeholders to improve policies and practices so that the environmental footprint of all marine industries increases at a lower rate than the growth in the industries themselves.

The Forum’s Global Agenda Councils have much to offer in support of blue growth and it is incumbent upon us to build on the momentum and make sure that we do. The Oceans Council will work with other councils at their summit in Dubai to identify and explore opportunities. We also welcome engagement with other stakeholders to pursue this topic.

The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015 Report is now live.

More on ocean conservation
Know our fish to save your oceans
Seafood supply chains: no more fishy business
Deepsea mining: a new frontier in the struggle for resources

Author: Dr. Stephen Hall is director general of WorldFish and a member of the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Oceans.

Image: Fish swim past a reef in the Red Sea in Dahab, about 600 km (373 miles) southeast of Cairo, July 28, 2009. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih