In 2008 the United Nations designated June 8 as World Oceans Day, “a day for humanity to celebrate the ocean.” Since then, it’s had about as much to do with the ecological economic and human rights disasters affecting our seas as Arbor Day has to do with global deforestation. Because it’s so vast and poorly regulated, the ocean sector of the global economy has been largely out of sight and out of mind.
A recent study from Duke University’s School of Business found that 100 companies with combined revenues of over $1 trillion control 60 percent of the global ocean economy. Nine of the top 10 are oil companies, including Exxon, Shell, BP, and state-owned companies from Saudi Arabia and Iran. High levels of corporate consolidation and control also exist in the cruise ship industry, container shipping, and port services, and industrial fishing fleets—heavily subsidized by China, Japan, the European Union, and other nations—are killing fish faster than they can reproduce and threatening whales, dolphins, and other critical species in the process. While factory farms are horrific in their cruelty and ecological impacts, industrial trawlers that scrape the bottom of the ocean of all life combine the worst aspects of overfishing and clear-cut logging.
In many ways, ocean industries are even more polluting than their terrestrial counterparts. Much of the global shipping fleet uses bunker fuel, the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet. Illegal bilge dumping of oily waste continues despite periodic crackdowns, resulting in more than 800,000 tons of fuel oil sludge and other waste entering the ocean each year.
Leaking offshore oil rigs and pipes create a constant source of pollution that is hard to measure and mitigate. One example is Taylor Energy, which poured an estimated 29,000 gallons of oil a day for 14 years into the Gulf of Mexico until a cleanup was finally ordered by the Coast Guard in 2018 (which the oil company is still fighting in court). The ocean also gets used as a garbage dump for some 8 million metric tons of plastic waste every year, while the American Chemistry Council (members include BASF, Dow, Dupont, Shell, Chevron, and Exxon) continues to promote consumer-based recycling as the solution. If present trends continue, plastic will outweigh the biomass of all fish in our seas by 2050.
The latest push to corporatize the ocean and its little-understood abyssal plains involves deep-sea mining for rare and not-so-rare metals including cobalt, manganese, copper, and nickel using robotic bulldozer-like harvesters.
Those calling for a new blue economy centered on environmental and social sustainability have their work cut out for them. When conservationists, responsible corporations like Volvo or Samsung that have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, or members of the Biden administration discuss creating an ocean economy based on greening our ports, restoring our coastal ecosystems, transitioning from offshore oil and gas to offshore wind and clean energy, or promoting regenerative fishing and aquaculture, they are talking about something completely different from what happens today.
The usual suspects—oil companies, chemical and industrial agriculture polluters, major developers, and “distant water” fishing corporations—will fight tooth and fin to maintain the status quo that allows them to extract maximum profits from the seas while externalizing their destructive impacts on the rest of society and the ocean ecosystem.
Fortunately, many proponents of the new blue economy have learned the lessons of the past. They are putting the economic benefits of smart blue growth front and center—including 80,000 jobs and $166 billion in investment in offshore wind over the next 15 years and tens of thousands more jobs in US coastal restoration. Protecting and restoring coastal habitats will also reduce storm damage and benefit the hospitality and tourism sector, which employs over 7 million US workers and produces $450 billion in GDP annually.
New blue economy jobs also foster human health and racial justice. Green ports that reduce diesel emissions and electrify operations mean less toxic air exposure for vulnerable adjacent neighborhoods—mostly low-income communities of color—as well as promoting US leadership in clean technologies. Sustainable aquaculture focused on fast-growing sea vegetables and shellfish not only clean the water by turning excess nutrients into food products; it is ushering in a new era of small-business entrepreneurship. Start-ups are now booming in Maine and Alaska, including a number of Indigenous-owned companies.
Vibrant coastal ecosystems and working waterfronts provide not only jobs but also peace of mind and stress reduction that can bring real, tangible health benefits to individuals and communities. One study found that living near the ocean can reduce mortality rates 12–17 percent, which, among other obvious benefits, increases worker productivity.
The environment versus jobs debate was always a false dichotomy. Today, it’s being turned on its head: Not investing in a new blue economy is a much greater economic threat to the country than continuing the destructive practices that have brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe and ocean extinctions, while exacerbating economic and racial injustice. Advocates for a new approach have science, economics, and equity on their side, and while the fight to protect the ocean and the more sustainable livelihoods it can provide will be fierce, it could also lead to a wave of change.