Nature and Biodiversity

The blue economy is worth $2.5 trillion a year. But what is it?

The Eastern Caribbean is leading efforts to develop the "blue economy".

The Eastern Caribbean is leading efforts to develop the "blue economy". Image: Unsplash/Tomasz Tomal

Anna Wellenstein
Director for Sustainable Development, Latin America and Caribbean Region at World Bank Group
Genevieve Connors
Environment Practice Manager, Latin America and the Caribbean region
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  • The blue economy is built around coastal and marine resources, and creates millions of jobs worldwide.
  • However, harmful human practices that damage the oceans also threaten this key sector of the global economy.
  • The Eastern Caribbean is at the forefront of efforts to invest heavily in developing the blue economy, in close partnership with the World Bank and others.
  • As a growing number of coastal and marine-related activities – such as tourism and fisheries – compete for limited coastal space, it will be critical for Eastern Caribbean countries to establish effective conflict-resolution mechanisms.

Did you know that coastal and marine-based industries contribute upwards of US$2.5 trillion to the global economy? These activities create millions of jobs and generate myriad other benefits and services. However, such benefits are offset by harmful human practices that are destroying the health of our oceans through overfishing, marine pollution, and global warming which increases sea surface temperature causing massive worldwide coral bleaching events and die-off.

The Blue Economy development approach aims to address this conflicting relationship with the world’s oceans. A vibrant Blue Economy promotes sustainable and integrated use of coastal and marine living natural resources for economic growth and improved livelihoods and jobs , all while maintaining the integrity and health of coastal and marine ecosystems.

The countries of the Eastern Caribbean are large maritime nations with a combined ocean area of more than 546,000 km2, supporting traditional sectors of the blue economy, e.g., fisheries, tourism, and shipping, as well as emerging sectors such as mariculture, renewable energy, and biotechnology.

The Eastern Caribbean is today at the forefront of global efforts to invest heavily in developing its blue economy in close partnership with the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and the PROBLUE Multi-Donor Trust Fund. The launching of the Unleashing of the Blue Economy of the Caribbean Project (UBEC) is a great example of how the Caribbean is advancing.

UBEC is a US$60 million project from International Development Association and PROBLUE-financed regional blue economy investment program. The project is designed for the whole of the Caribbean and benefits Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and the Grenadines and involves the OECS Commission in Phase I from 2022 to 2027.

The success of UBEC is already apparent having just been awarded the illustrious Global United Nations Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) Partnerships Award in the Economic Category in recognition of its commitment and support to catalyze the Blue Economy of Caribbean SIDS; setting the stage for further scaled-up investment in the Blue Economy across all global SIDS.

What is the current baseline for the blue economy in the Eastern Caribbean?

With support from the PROBLUE Multi-Donor Trust Fund, the World Bank commissioned a series of Blue Economy studies to shed light on the status of the Caribbean ocean economy. Key findings highlighted that the main blue economy sectors are among those most affected by the adverse impacts of climate change, including: increased sea surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and the destructive impacts borne from the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters.

At the same time, the Eastern Caribbean is rich in marine biodiversity and has the highest number of species in the entire Caribbean. However, these living coastal and marine natural resources are threatened by unregulated coastal development, land-based leakage of solid and liquid pollution, overfishing, and Sargassum blooms that restrict beach and shoreline access, and together have a detrimental impact on the health of coastal communities, food security and the tourism industry.

The tourism industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Progress in vaccination in some of the main source markets, pent-up demand, and marketing of the islands as 'safe havens' will help the sector steadily recover in 2022. And, though it is a mature sector, tourism demand in the region has significant growth potential by targeting distinct tourism segments, adapting to new market demands, and improving the overall resilience and sustainability of the environmental and natural resources base upon which the tourism industry depends.

Marine fisheries are an important source of food security and jobs in the Eastern Caribbean, although they account for only a small share of GDP. Here more needs to be done . The status of most fish and shellfish stocks in the region are poorly understood due to a lack of data, financial support and institutional capacity. There are important opportunities to add value to the sector by improving product quality and harmonizing sanitary and phytosanitary measures for seafood. Mariculture is also a promising area of growth, particularly for increased export of sea moss (a seaweed) due to its rising popularity as a superfood in international markets.

On the flip side, an estimated 80 % of marine pollution in the Eastern Caribbean comes from land-based leakage, mainly untreated wastewater, mismanaged litter, and agricultural run-off . Waste management is crucial to the health of the island states’ coastal fisheries and associated ecosystems which are, in turn, critical for the beaches and other natural assets that attract holiday makers. While these countries have waste management systems in place and are making concerted efforts to address the problem of plastics pollution, in most cases, there are no separate collection systems or protocols for recyclables, key measures for curbing plastics pollution.

Going forward

As a growing number of coastal and marine-related activities compete for limited coastal space (e.g. tourism, fisheries, and mariculture), going forward it will be critical for Eastern Caribbean countries to establish appropriate and effective conflict-resolution mechanisms. A more vibrant and sustainable blue economy in the Eastern Caribbean will rely on concerted actions, the most urgent of which include:

  • Ensure that their National Ocean Governance Committees are operational and have resources to coordinate, guide, and inform government actions to foment a strong blue economy;
  • Implement their Coastal Master and Marine Spatial Plans to guide decision-making and support conflict resolution related to this shared coastal and marine space;
  • Be sure to bring in women, youth, local communities and underrepresented groups as key stakeholders in dialogue and decisions about the blue economy;
  • Support micro, small, and medium enterprises by providing ready access to finance and capacity building to increase productivity, drive innovation, and promote product diversification; and
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