The Pacific Ocean is the largest feature on Earth. It is big enough to fit both the Atlantic and Indian oceans inside and still leave space for more. This ocean hosts the most diverse marine areas on the planet, the deepest trench, the healthiest coral reefs and the largest tuna stocks.
The Pacific is also a big blue engine of economic growth and prosperity. Economies forming part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) line the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and include nine of the world’s 10 top fishing nations. If you care about our oceans and about the food security and livelihoods of people, then the Pacific is ground zero.
Last week I traveled to Tianjin in China — the world’s second largest economy and predicted to be the largest by 2020 — to engage in discussions with China and APEC economies about “blue economy.” This is a relatively new concept, and a detailed definition has not yet been agreed. Central to the idea, however, is the recognition that coasts and oceans can provide economic and social benefits to people as long as the ways they use the ocean do not undermine the health of ecosystems upon these benefits depend.
Nowhere is this more urgent than in China. In his opening remarks at the 2nd APEC Blue Economy Forum, Liu Cigui — the head of China’s State Oceanic Administration — highlighted that the marine economy generates 9.7% of GDP and 34.2 million jobs in China. Many of these jobs depend on coastal and marine ecosystems and the services they provide, from fisheries to coastal protection to tourism.
From discussions with Liu Cigui, it is clear that China’s leaders are aware of the environmental issues caused by the country’s rapid economic growth, and want to learn from experiences elsewhere in order to improve its practices and environment. Noting that all strong countries in history have been maritime powers, Liu Cigui’s concerns specifically relates to coastal and ocean environments, which in China have been impacted by overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution.
This realization and the desire to take bold action offer a unique time-window of opportunity to shift the trajectory of ocean economic development to one that places equal weight on people and on nature.
Over four days, we discussed blue economic development experiences from around the Asia-Pacific region, as well as future needs. There are many good examples and success stories, including from seascapes where CI works with partners to improve ocean health and to generate benefits for people.
Also, there are emerging opportunities to harness blue economic development for ocean health, including conserving reservoirs of “blue carbon” — carbon captured and stored by coastal ecosystems like mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses. When intact, these habitats also act as nurseries for fish and protect coastal infrastructure, benefitting industries from fisheries to factories.
Despite these bright spots, the take-home message for me from the forum is that so far in the APEC region, the emphasis has been more on “economy” and much less on “blue.” In my presentation to the forum participants, I underscored the need for quantitative measures of ocean health to track ocean health over time in order to make sure blue economic development is sustainable long-term.
APEC economies have a long way to go to secure healthy oceans that can continue to provide food and livelihoods to their citizens. Still, they are providing the urgently needed leadership to advance blue economic development and harness their collective power — together they make up 57% of the world’s GDP — to provide us all with a model for how to achieve healthy oceans and a better planet.
Sebastian Troeng is the senior vice president of the CI’s Global Marine division.