If the oceans were a nation, their output would rank them as 7th in terms of GDP, right behind Britain and just ahead of Brazil. A recent study has found that annual “Gross Marine Product” was worth $2.5 trillion, including fisheries, coastal tourism, shipping lanes, and the capacity oceans have to absorb carbon dioxide. And that’s despite us humans having only explored less than 10% of the oceans. The potential is huge, and interest is on the rise.

Perhaps as a testament to this potential, profiles of our oceans have reached unprecedented heights in recent months – a cover feature in the FT, a dedicated conference hosted by John Kerry, a yearly Economist summit and numerous articles covering the many plights of our oceans. The world’s leading economic and financial media pillars of information are talking oceans – something previously unheard of. I hope this stems from a collective realisation of the conflict between our misuse of oceans, and the potential we could be wasting.

There are some pretty fantastic efforts out there to build on this potential, blending technological innovation, public-private partnerships, and new governance models. But there is room for so much more, creating a wonderful opportunity for entrepreneurs in this space. Solutions that build on the economic potential of oceans with sustainability at their core will be crucial if we want to avoid failing our blue planet.

Here are a few of the areas of opportunity:

  • The potential for mining the seabed is increasingly being explored – some geologists estimate that a 2.3 km2 patch of seafloor could contain enough rare earth materials to meet our global demand for a year – how can environmental damage be avoided in this quest?
  • The opportunity for the discovery of pharmaceutical components in the oceans is huge – studies have shown marine natural products are six times more productive than the industry standard – how can these be sustainably harvested and their natural habitat protected?
  • Scientific and technological advances are unleashing new potential in wave energy and ocean thermal energy conversion – how can high costs and the challenging ocean environment be overcome?
  • Ocean plastic pollution is a great challenge, with 8 million tonnes of plastics ending up in the ocean every year, equaling about five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline. Fantastic solutions are being deployed to clean up our oceans; how could innovative partnerships between companies and municipalities prevent the plastics from actually getting there in the first place?
  • Global demand for fresh water exceeds supply – what will it take to reduce the cost and energy intensity of desalination?

And for the rest of us representing global institutions of different kinds? Well, let’s think about how we can create the enabling environments for entrepreneurs in the ocean space. The Ocean Health XPrize is a great example of this, and perhaps new models like impact investing can help us encourage the innovation we so desperately need.

Let’s reverse the course, and move our oceans from a failed nation to one where economic growth and sustainability truly go hand in hand.

Author: Nathalie Chalmers, Senior Project Manager, Circular Economy, Environmental Initiatives, World Economic Forum

Image: Small islands off of Vancouver Island’s town of Ucluelet are seen from aboard the Ocean Sunset commercial fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean, British Columbia June 26, 2012. REUTERS/Ben Nelms