What you need to know about the blue economy

Kenya, one of Africa’s popular safari destinations, hosted the first global conference on the sustainable blue economy last November. But what exactly does the term “blue economy” mean?

In the recent past, several countries have started to diversify their sources of economic growth in order to achieve strong and sustainable development.

This has led to the emergence of a concept known as the “blue economy” which supports better utilization of ocean resources.

The blue economy is popularly defined as the sustainable use of ocean resources in order to achieve enhanced economic growth, better livelihoods and employment while minimizing environmental risks on the ocean ecosystem.

It differs from the green economy in that the former focuses on ensuring the healthy functioning of the ocean ecosystem while the latter focuses on ensuring the healthy functioning of the earth ecosystem.

Thus, the green economy fosters the growth of the economy by ensuring that the natural resources in the environment are not degraded. The blue ecosystem, on the other hand, fosters economic growth through the use of ocean resources.

Green economy sectors include green buildings, water management, renewable energy, waste management and clean transportation.

Like the green economy, the blue economy also focuses on these sectors and others such as fisheries and tourism.

The blue economy, therefore, is part of the green economy. In fact, in some states like the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), there is no difference between the green and blue economy.

This is because although the blue economy focuses mainly on the marine ecosystem, the oceans and seas cover over 71% of the earth’s surface. Hence, they also contribute to the green economy.

Economic uses of ocean and coastal resources in the blue economy

It is no secret that ocean resources are limited. The health of the oceans has also dramatically reduced as a result of anthropogenic activities.

Negative effects are already being felt across the world and are affecting the well-being of humans and society as a whole.

These effects are also likely to get worse in the future – as population increases – if something is not done.

Therefore, a major challenge of the blue economy is how to better understand and manage the various aspects of ocean sustainability. These aspects range from sustainable fisheries to ecosystem health and pollution.

The blue economy involves a number of activities. These activities highly contribute to economic growth and also help in coastal protection, waste disposal, and carbon sequestration.

According to the World Bank, these activities include well established traditional ocean industries like mining, fisheries, renewable energy, tourism, waste management, climate change, and maritime transport.

1. Tourism

Tourism plays a significant role in the economic, social, and environmental development of many countries.

It contributes trillions of dollars to the global economy and also supports the livelihoods of about one in ten people across the globe.

Thus, in most countries – both developing and developed economies – tourism is considered a driver of economic growth. In addition, it is a pathway for enhancing the fortunes of communities that would otherwise struggle to grow.

Coastal and marine tourism account for a significant percentage of the tourism industry.

Over the years, this form of tourism has become an important source of foreign exchange in many countries. This is the case in SIDS and Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

It is therefore considered an essential component of the growing sustainable blue economy.

Coastal and marine tourism are expected to grow at a rate of 26% by 2030. As a result, it is expected to become the largest value-adding segment of the ocean economy.

Managing this growth will be vital in order to ensure that the ecosystems that support tourism opportunities are sustained.

Coastal and marine tourism includes dive tourism, cruises, surfing, maritime archaeology, recreational fishing operations and ecotourism.

Ensuring sustainable tourism can, therefore, help to promote the conservation and sustainable use of marine environments and species in a blue economy.

It can also help to generate income for the locals thereby alleviating poverty. In addition, it can help to maintain local traditions, cultures and heritage.

Poverty eradication

As a part of a blue economy, tourism can significantly contribute to poverty eradication.

Coastal and marine tourism provides employment and brings economic growth to SIDS and coastal LDCs.

These states have been reported to receive over 41 million visitors a year. Caribbean regions for instance strongly rely on tourism for their economic growth and well-being.

In addition, sustainable development brought about by tourism triggers similar developments in other economic activities. It also helps in the protection of natural and cultural resources of islands.

Programs, policies and interventions geared toward SIDS and other island economies may benefit from the inclusion of tourism.

2. Climate change

Over the years, climate change has had a major negative impact on oceans.

Coastal erosion, increasing sea levels, acidification, and changes in ocean current patterns have all been linked to climate change.

The blue economy plays a significant role in the mitigation of climate change.

Shallow coastal water ecosystems like tidal marshes, mangroves, and seagrass beds are now considered important in the management of essential natural carbon sinks.

Through extensive research, these coastal habitats have been found to fix carbon at a rate higher than the land-based systems.

Studies have shown that they are more effective at long-term sequestration of carbon compared to terrestrial systems.

Moreover, coastal habitats like coral reefs, coastal marshes, and mangroves have been found to provide significant protection from events such as cyclones and hurricanes.

Take for instance Belize in the Caribbean region. It has the largest barrier reef which buffers the coastline from hurricanes.

Therefore, through the right management, ecosystems mitigate against coastal erosion. They also control flooding from storms and rising sea levels and wave actions.

The blue economy also plays a very important role in disaster risk reduction in SIDS.

In addition, it ensures the continued building of the disaster risk reduction and readiness of coastal populations.

This helps them to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.

3. Renewable energy

SIDS and coastal LDCs usually depend on fuel imports to meet their energy needs. They are highly dependent on the diesel economy.

This makes them vulnerable to fluctuating energy prices and high transportation costs.

In 2011 for instance, fuel imports expenditure in SIDS accounted for about 11.9% of GDP. This was higher than in health care spending.

Fossil fuel import is, therefore, placing an economic burden and affecting the development of SIDS.

This, coupled with the environmental burden brought about by emissions of carbon, makes it necessary to embrace renewable energy for sustainable development.

Sustainable marine energy plays an important role in social and economic development. It also aids in climate adaptability and mitigation.

Oceans offer a lot of opportunities for renewable energy exploitation. This is known as the blue energy which comes from wave, tidal, wind and ocean thermal energy conversion.

Wind energy has gained popularity over the years especially in Europe. Other forms of renewable energy are still being experimented on and not in use commercially.

For instance, in places like Hawaii, wave energy is being experimented on by Hawaii Electric.

Oceans provide opportunities for renewable energy and also act as carbon sinks and hydrocarbon sources.

Carbon sinks act like sponges that soak up the carbon emitted from the industrial process.

This helps to deal with the effects of climate change.

4. Fisheries

According to a 2012 report by the World Bank, marine fisheries account for over $270 billion of the global GDP per year.

The industry is a major source of economic and food security across the globe. It provides livelihood to more than 300 million people involved in the sector.

Through the marine fisheries sector, the nutritional needs of over 3 billion people who depend on fish as a source of food are met.

For instance, over 16% of the animal protein consumed in the world comes from fish.

In fact, small quantities of fish have been found to highly address food and nutritional security among the poor and vulnerable people around the world.

Sustain livelihoods

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), fish farmers, fishers and suppliers of products and services related to the marine fisheries sector help to sustain the livelihood of nearly 800 million people worldwide through the creation of employment opportunities.

Providing employment opportunities to young people especially in the poorest communities in the world helps them to stay in their communities. This, in turn, strengthens the economic viability of isolated areas.

Fisheries sector also provides a social safety net. For instance, women play a very important role in secondary activities in the sector.

They are involved in fish processing and marketing activities. This, as a result, enhances the status of women in the community.

Healthy fisheries and the growth of the sector means more jobs, increased food security and well-being for them.

The potential to develop the blue economy in the fisheries sectors is however limited by a number of challenges.

A major challenge is unsustainable fishing due to technological improvements.

Poorly managed access to fish stocks coupled with the rising demand for fish also contribute to unsustainable fishing.

According to a report by FAO, the exploitation of fish stocks is also a result of illegal and unregulated fishing.

This yields about $10-22 billion revenue that is not only unlawful but also undocumented.

Therefore, in order to make a long-term contribution to the blue economy, fisheries need to be well-governed and managed.

5. Maritime transport

Maritime transport has been reported to be one of the most important drivers of change in SIDS. It plays an important role in the growth of the economy, society and the environment.

In regards to economic growth, goods and raw materials are usually shipped through the sea, which is the main mode of transport.

Therefore, it facilitates global trade, which in turn contributes to economic growth.

The society benefits from the jobs created both at sea and ashore when goods and raw materials are being shipped.

Environmental impacts that are associated with maritime transport include marine and atmospheric pollution.

Examples of this kind of pollution are underwater noise, marine litter, and introduction and spread of invasive species.

To ensure sustainable growth, there are new international regulations that have been introduced.

These regulations require the shipping industry to invest more in environmental technologies.

The technologies should focus on issues like carbon emissions, ballast water treatment, and waste management.

This not only benefits the environment but also leads to long-term cost saving for the shipping companies due to increased fuel efficiency.

6. Waste management

As the population increases in SIDS and LDCs, waste has also increased creating a need for waste management systems.

This is because over 90% of waste in these regions goes to landfills and very little is recycled. With the limited land area, waste has become a major issue among SIDS.

Wastewater, marine litter and nutrients from fossil fuel and fertilizer are the main causes of pollution among the coastal states.

This results in water, air, soil and marine pollution, which directly affects the biological biodiversity of aquatic ecosystems.

To ensure sustainable use of resources through waste management, ocean monitoring and surveillance was introduced.

It includes a number of activities with different legal frameworks.

It also includes activities concerning human and environmental safety such as weather forecasting and disaster response.

The blue economy conference in Kenya

The first global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held in Kenya from 26th -28th November 2018.

Kenya hosted the conference in a bid to tap into the productive capacity of water resources and empower its citizens.

The conference was aimed at providing a forum to advance the international conversation regarding sustainable development of the blue economy.

Over 4,000 participants from across the world attended the conference.

The theme of the blue economy conference

This ministerial conference theme will be ‘Blue Economy and the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development’. Sub-themes will include:

• Employment, job creation and poverty eradication
• Cities, tourism entertainment and blue economy
• Energy, mineral resources and sustainable development
• Ending hunger, securing food supplies, and promoting good health and dietary practices
• Management and sustaining of marine life, conservation and sustainable economic activity
• Climate action, agriculture and pollution free oceans
• Maritime security and enforcement
• People communities and societies and the inclusive blue economy

The conference focused on:

• New technologies and innovations for seas, oceans, lakes and rivers
• Challenges facing the blue economy
• Potential opportunities for economic growth particularly in ocean sectors like tourism, fisheries, maritime transport, and offshore mining.
• Priorities for the blue economy
• Partnerships


Kenya hosted the conference in partnership with Canada.

According to Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, this partnership will give both countries an opportunity to talk about their relationship when it comes to the blue economy.

He added that the two countries are finding ways to harness ocean resources to support the growth of the economy.

The conference was sponsored by Portugal, Norway, Fiji, UK, UNDP, and Kenya’s Capital Markets Authority.

Benefits of the conference to the participants

The participants learned how to build a blue economy that can yield the potential of the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers. This is so as to enhance the lives of their people especially women, youth and indigenous people.

Attendees also learned how to establish a blue economy that can take advantage of the latest innovations and best practices to properly conserve their waters for other generations in the future.

How did Kenya benefit from the blue economy conference?

This conference gave Kenya a chance to partner with other countries on the blue economy. The country will also get support to fight the challenges brought about by climate change.

Hosting the blue economy conference affirms that Kenya appreciates the importance of conserving and sustainably using marine resources.

Case studies

The blue economy offers an innovative way through which oceans are conserved while people reap their benefits in a way that is more equitable and sustainable.

This can be proved through a number of case studies that show the flexibility and diversity of the concept of the blue economy. Let’s look at Seychelles and Madagascar.


There are about 115 islands in the Republic of Seychelles and about 99% of its territory is ocean-based.

This clearly shows why the blue economy is relevant in the region.

blue economy
One of 115 islands in the Seychelles archipelago

The government of Seychelles has embraced this concept as a mechanism to help the country realize sustainable economic development based on an ocean economy.

Through its support for the blue economy, the country recognizes that sustainability is crucial to ensuring local objectives.

In 2018, the government approved the Seychelles Blue Economy Strategic Framework and Roadmap as an integrated approach to ocean-based sustainable development.

This was aimed at bringing together the economy, society and the environment, consistent with the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030.

By initiating this roadmap, the government’s aim is to achieve economic diversification and create high-value jobs. It also hopes to improve food security and protect the marine environment in a sustainable way.

Every industry in Seychelles is expected to contribute to the coordinated national development.

They are also expected to develop strategies and regulations through the use of fisheries and marine resources.

For instance, the local authority is articulating a fisheries management plan in the fishing industry.


Traditional fishers in southwest Madagascar began creating a regional blue economy in 2004.

This involved closing part of their octopus fishing ground to all fishing and the re-opening it after 7 months.

On re-opening after the first closure, they discovered that the size of their catches had increased tremendously.

Octopus farming forms a very important part of the economy in southwest Madagascar as most traditional fisherwomen rely on it as a source of income.

The livelihood of many people involved in the value chain depends highly on the sustainability of the fisheries industry in Madagascar.

These people also depend on the fish to feed their families on a daily basis. This makes it difficult to implement the closure system because they may lack food and money during that period.

For this reason, people came up with the idea of closing only a part of the fishing ground so as to increase their catch. This translated to more food and income for the locals.

The temporary closure of a part of the fishing ground in southwest Madagascar has attracted the attention of other communities and conservation NGOs.

Together with the communities, the NGO’s have created community-led Managed Marine Areas (MPAs) or Locally-Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs). This focuses on areas of the ocean and coastal habitats under formal community management.

LMMAs’ success has driven the government of Madagascar to establish a Sydney Vision.

This vision is aimed at expanding the marine habitat’s area that is protected and strengthen the management rights of small-scale fishers via the expansion of a system of community-managed marine protected areas.

Huge potential

In conclusion, the blue economy can offer huge potential for countries, particularly SIDS.

This is because they depend on the wealth of resources within the coastal areas and oceans to support national growth and the global economy.

Sustainable ocean industries like fisheries, marine renewable energy, tourism, climate change, maritime transport, and waste management provide opportunities to generate new sources of employment, enhance growth, diversity and the economy.

They also build climate resilience, minimize the dependency of a region on energy imports and address the issue of food security.

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