Recently I was having an intense conversation with a friend about the strong need for Caribbean islands to develop their economies as blue economies, insisting that it is critical for governments to make this transition as quickly as possible. I thought we had a common understanding of what the term blue economy meant until he asked if it was about the fishing industry. That question caused me to pause a bit as it made me realize that the whole concept of the blue economy is still relatively little understood. If we want to have it fully embraced, there is a need to explain some different shades of blue.
- The first shade of the blue economy is that there is no universally accepted definition for the term. That said, I do like the working explanation used by The Economist Intelligent Unit: “a sustainable ocean economy emerges when economic activity is in balance with the long-term capacity of ocean ecosystems to support this activity and remain resilient and healthy.” The elements I like about this definition are those of sustainability, carrying capacity, ecosystems, resiliency and health, as they instill in us a sense of the need for long-term planning, the need to respond to climate change and the need for maintenance. These are key areas for the island economies.
- A second shade of blue relates to the various elements of the ocean economy –not just the usual suspects such as fisheries, tourism and recreation, coastal protection, energy, minerals, waste disposal, transportation and trade (Patil et al 2016)–but also carbon sequestration (the capture of carbon in ecosystems), the intrinsic value of biodiversity and marine biotechnology, additional threads that are also woven into the tapestry of the blue economy.
- The third shade of blue is that of the natural capital assets of the ocean economy, its living resources, together with ecosystems and ecosystem processes. The flow of material and services from these assets drives the ocean economy; any interruption or reduction in the quality and quantity of this flow will have adverse impacts on economic outputs.
- The need for a strong emphasis on the policies, regulation and enforcement needed to make all of the elements of the blue economy work in harmony and be sustained constitute the fourth shade. This is critical as there has to be adequate planning, use and management of the “development spaces” of the blue economy. These development spaces are the coastal and marine areas where blue economic activities take place. There has to be careful and equitable sharing of these areas. Further, despite the small size of some islands, it may be worth setting aside some areas where development should not take place.
- The fifth shade of blue is that of the research and innovation necessary for the development of the blue economy. In the Caribbean there is a paucity of data on the assets that exist beneath the surface of the fresh and salt waters within and surrounding islands states. There is always a scramble to find data when projects need to be implemented, resulting in the use of proxies, extrapolations, old data, and imprecise national aggregations in lieu of current and relevant data. Innovation is also required in order to activate the new elements of the blue economy, particularly for islands where human and institutional capacities are limited, as innovation will help overcome some of the diseconomies of scale that exist in small islands. The use of ICT will play a critical part in this innovation space.
I am sure there are more shades of the blue economy that can be explored, especially related to its social and cultural aspects. At the end of the day, however, that those with a stake in island economies have to realize that many of their principal natural assets are not on land but in the water surrounding them–that their economies are primarily blue and this “blueness” extends to areas that go way beyond that of the fishing industry.