The Ocean Economy

The Ocean Economy

Source: Adapted from the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2015.

For centuries the oceans have been used for fishing, transport, and trade. However, such use remained relatively marginal concerning the bulk of human activities. With globalization, economic growth, and technological innovation, the usage of the oceans for economic purposes has increased substantially. The term “ocean economy” is often used to characterize the wide range of activities related to the exploitation of maritime resources (such as food and energy) or the use of the ocean for transport and commercial purposes. The term “blue economy” is used as well, mostly when related to the sustainable use of the oceans.

Three types of oceanic regions help articulate the ocean economy, with coastal areas representing the most extensively used because of their adjacency and ease of access. In recent years, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) have been formalized for the purpose of sovereign ownership of energy and mineral resources, as well as fishing rights. The deepsea (or high seas) is usually composed of international waters, with navigation being its most prevalent use. The extraction of resources on the high seas is subject to international regulations, commonly managed by the United Nations.

There are three groups of activities related to the ocean economy:

  • Harvesting of living resources. The most conventional use of ocean resources concerns fisheries, which account for about 15% of the world’s protein intake, with aquaculture accounting for about 20% of all the fish harvested. A growing share of seafood comes from aquaculture since conventional fish sources are challenged by overfishing, and the global population requires additional protein sources. With scientific advances, marine biotechnology enables a more extensive usage of aquatic resources for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
  • Extraction of non-living resources. The use of the oceans to extract energy and mineral resources is relatively recent. Seabed mining is an emerging technology enabling the extraction of minerals from nodules. Although this activity can occur at almost any depth, the mineral rights are only available within an EEZ. The International Seabed Authority manages mineral rights for the high seas, but no significant commercial ventures have so far been realized. Oil and gas are extracted from offshore platforms, mostly on the continental shelf within EEZs. The use of the oceans as a source of renewable energy is also beginning, particularly in terms of offshore wind farms and tidal energy use. In many areas, the scarcity of freshwater supply has incited the construction of desalination plants, which account for a growing share of the world’s freshwater production.
  • Maritime trade and commerce. With globalization, international trade and maritime shipping have experienced substantial growth. This went on part with the expansion of port facilities and their associated logistical activities. The use of the oceans for touristic purposes is expanding, particularly in tropical and subtropical areas. The ongoing development of coastal resorts occupies a significant amount of coastal real estate that has been captured by large hotel chains. Cruise shipping is also expanding with larger ships servicing more itineraries and has created an entirely new dimension to the ocean economy. Over the centuries, human coastal settlements have emerged to take advantage of the commercial opportunities offered by maritime shipping. Many of the world’s most important cities are port cities. The process now continues, in part driven by the economic and esthetical amenities offered by coastal areas.