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Global ‘Blue Deal’ urgently needed to protect and invest in our ocean

Fish Farms
© Shutterstock/Aerial-motion | Aerial photo of a fish farm.

An UNCTAD report highlights the opportunities the ocean holds for developing countries and charts a new course to sustainably use marine resources.

The ocean holds vast opportunities for developing countries to build more innovative and resilient economies.

But climate change, pollution and overfishing threaten those opportunities and the livelihoods of about 3 billion people who rely on the ocean for food and income.

UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Review 2023, published on 8 May, analyzes the world’s ocean economy – worth an estimated $3-6 trillion – and assesses how human activity and multiple global crises have significantly affected different sectors, including fishing, seafood, shipping and coastal tourism.

The report, presented at the 3rd UN Trade Forum, calls for a global trade, investment and innovation “Blue Deal” to sustainably use our ocean, home to 80% of all life. It builds on the recommendations from the 4th UN Oceans Forum and the 2nd UN Ocean Conference held in 2022.

“The ocean economy offers many opportunities. We must strike the right balance between benefitting from the ocean and protecting its resources,” UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Pedro Manuel Moreno said.

Invest in emerging sustainable opportunities

A global “Blue Deal” could drive more investment into emerging sustainable sectors that could benefit developing countries. The report highlights two promising sectors – seaweed farming and plastics substitutes.

The global market for seaweed has more than tripled in two decades, increasing from $4.5 billion in 2000 to $16.5 billion in 2020.

Seaweed doesn’t need fresh water or fertilizer to grow. It can be farmed in many developing countries for food, cosmetics and biofuels, and provides an alternative to plastic – 11 million tonnes of which flow into the ocean each year.

Besides seaweed, nature abounds in many other sustainable materials that could be used to make eco-friendly versions of the straws, food wrapping and other plastic products we consume daily.

The list includes materials that many developing countries have in abundance, like bamboo, coconut husks, banana plants and agricultural wastes. And their communities have a wealth of traditional and cultural knowledge in using these materials.

The world traded about $388 billion in plastics substitutes in 2020 – just one third the amount traded in plastics made from fossil fuels. So there is huge potential for growth.

The report calls for governments and businesses to boost funding for the research and development of emerging sustainable sectors in the ocean economy.

It urges companies to invest in developing countries to bolster their technology, skills and productive capacities, so both can capitalize on the new ocean opportunities.

Promote export diversification

Investing in emerging ocean sectors could help developing countries to diversify their ocean exports.

The global export value of ocean-based goods, such as seafood and port equipment, and services including shipping and coastal tourism was estimated at $1.3 trillion in 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis revealed the potential and resilience of some sectors and the extreme vulnerability of others. In general, exports of ocean-based goods, which fell by 3.2%, held up better than services, which collapsed by 59% in 2020.

The drop in revenue from services hit many coastal communities in developing countries, which often rely on sectors like tourism. Diversifying their ocean exports and activities is key to building economic resilience to future crises.

Governments, the report says, should include the goal of promoting a diverse and sustainable ocean economy in crisis recovery strategies and climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Protect fish stocks and marine biodiversity

An estimated $35 billion of government subsidies go to fishing activities around the world.

A significant share – about $20 billion a year – could contribute to overfishing by enhancing the fishing industry’s capacity through, for example, fuel subsidies or financial incentives to buy bigger boats.

With 34% of global fish stocks below levels that are biologically sustainable, the report urges countries to urgently ratify the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies, adopted on 17 June 2022.

The agreement, which is a big step in addressing harmful subsidies, prohibits support for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, bans support for fishing overfished stocks, and ends subsidies for fishing on the unregulated high seas. It will enter into force when two thirds of the WTO’s 164 members deposit their “instruments of acceptance”.

Similarly, the report calls for governments to adopt and ratify the Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction agreement of 4 March 2023. Better known as the “High Seas Biodiversity Treaty”, the agreement will create tools for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from marine genetic resources and establish internationally protected areas in our ocean.

A new direction

The Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to life below water (SDG 14) is the least funded of all the goals.

From 2013 to 2018, only 1.6% of the total Official Development Assistance – some $2.9 billion per year – was directed to the ocean economy.

This is far below what’s required to address the ocean crisis. According to recent estimates, $175 billion per year will be the minimum needed to achieve SDG 14 by 2030, especially given the impact of COVID-19 and other recent setbacks.

It’s also estimated that an investment of $2.8 trillion today in four sustainable ocean solutions – conservation and restoration of mangroves, decarbonization of international shipping, sustainable ocean-based food production and offshore wind production – would yield net benefits of $15.5 trillion by 2050.

Without a global “Blue Deal”, such benefits and the targets of SDG 14 will be much harder to reach.

“Now is the time to set a new course by investing more in building a sustainable ocean economy,” Mr. Moreno said.

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