Let life in the oceans be a priority for ‘blue growth’

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Clean and healthy oceans are a source of wealth for millions of people. [ollografik/Flickr]

Today, as we celebrate World Water Day, I would like to highlight the issue of so-called ‘blue growth’. Our oceans can offer enormous opportunities to millions of people, but only if their ecosystems are preserved, writes Linnéa Engström.

Linnéa Engström is a Swedish Green MEP (Greens/EFA group) and first vice-chair of the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries.

Blue growth is considered a miracle cure for stagnating economic growth. It will cure overexploited fish stocks, dwindling resources and feed a growing world population. In the absence of a Planet B it gives a glimmer of hope. Blue economy is a collective term for hopes of creating sustainable blue growth of ocean resources.

According to the European Commission, the blue economy generates 5.4 million jobs and has an added value of €500 billion per year. In discussions at EU level the focus is, however, mainly on the exploitation of marine resources, not on efforts to preserve marine ecosystems. It is all about sectors with a high growth potential, aquaculture, industrial-scale energy production and mining of the seabed.

Fish stocks are already overexploited and unregulated in the new sectors and will impinge on local coastal communities’ traditional resources. I recently visited Senegal in West Africa, known for its fishing grounds. I was struck by how seemingly minor investments, e.g. freezers and sanitation facilities at the local fish markets, could improve the local economy, people’s living conditions and secure the food supply. Micro-investments are examples of how blue growth can promote sustainable development.

Blue growth should not, however, be an opportunity to continue the unlimited exploitation of the oceans. The oceans are still seen as a resource for free exploitation and free waste dumping. Environmental and social costs have been excluded from economic calculations, although oceans and marine ecosystems provide people worldwide with vital ecosystem services.

All forms of blue growth must unconditionally contribute to achieving global sustainable development of the oceans and marine resources, in accordance with goal 14 in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The goal states that the protection and restoration of coastal and marine areas is necessary for preserving biodiversity and resources, but also to strengthen resilience to climate change. To secure food production, the huge amounts of marine debris that builds up in the oceans, especially plastics, requires urgent action.

We must go beyond paying fishermen to become plastic collectors. A walk along the beach in Senegal, seeing fishermen come in with the day’s catch with plastic wading up to their knees is a good enough indication of the extent of the problem.

Greater regulation of fishing rights is another major threat to local coastal communities and traditional small-scale fishing. New fishing laws in the EU passed a few years ago have raised questions of the decline over time of the fishing communities’ and the fishing sector’s traditional rights to fish. As in many other parts of the world, they have been replaced by private and tradable rights. Thus, resources that were formerly universal access have become privately owned quotas and concentrated in the hands of a few owners.

There are global initiatives giving hope of a sustainability perspective. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has developed a ‘Blue Growth initiative’ (BGI), indicating a possible way forward. The BGI aims at building the resilience of coastal communities and restoring the production potential of fisheries and aquaculture, in order to support food security, poverty alleviation and the sustainable management of marine resources.

Reconciling blue growth and small-scale fishing is possible, but it requires systematic innovation and hard work. Above all, the rights of small-scale fisheries must be protected by law so that local communities have a safe priority access to traditional fishing areas. The oceans offer huge economic development potential for hundreds of millions of people, but only if the starting point is to preserve marine ecosystems.

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