These rules of the ocean economy will help the whole planet

My office at the University of California, Santa Barbara overlooks the coastline. The US’s first set of offshore oil platforms dot the skyline, and he’s the source of the 1969 oil spill that started the modern environmental movement. Huge cargo ships traverse the megahighways of the ocean, carrying supplies from all over the world and sometimes attacking and killing whales. A surfer rides the waves, his boat sails to the islands, and on sunny days, the beaches are prowled with sunbathers. Recreational fishermen cast lines from piers, commercial fishermen set up lobster traps along the coast, and small mussel farms are hidden beneath the surface offshore.

All of these activities are part of an intensifying “blue economy” that extracts value from the oceans that make up 71% of the planet. In many ways this is a good thing. Sea freight is one of the greenest ways to conduct global trade. Farmed seafood is nutritious and often sustainable. Offshore wind power has the potential to generate vast amounts of green energy. But an already warming and congested ocean will reach the same point that humans have reached on much of the land.

In fact, aquaculture, or the farming of fish and shellfish, has grown by about 5% annually over the past 30 years, and experts expect this growth to continue for decades to come. Offshore wind power is expanding rapidly. Britain is building her 1,000-square-kilometer wind turbine metropolis on its coast, and China quadrupled her offshore wind output last year, equivalent to about 17 nuclear power plants. Added quantity. Her much larger 7,000-square-kilometer wind farm, near the size of Puerto Rico, is proposed off the Atlantic coast of the United States. It is also expected that by 2050, the volume of goods transported by sea will triple her, due to the increase in world population, wealth and trade.

This is the dilemma at the center of my research. I have spent his 20 years researching the cumulative damage that ocean use not only causes to marine ecosystems, but also supports vibrant human societies. This work has led me to feel that collective bargaining is needed to ensure that the economic benefits of the blue economy outweigh the environmental costs. I propose that it should also contribute to relieving pressure on the land.

There is precedent for such give-and-take deals. In the United States and other countries, developers encroaching on wetlands and streams must create or restore equivalent habitat elsewhere, often at a two-to-one or much higher ratio. (eg, 10 hectares of new wetlands are required for every 1 hectare destroyed). Carbon credits work in a similar fashion. Fees paid for emissions can be used to plant forests or build renewable energy infrastructure.

Global transactions of this kind must adhere to three constraints in order to be fair and effective.

First, it argues for real, not contingent, profits. If coal plants have already been phased out, this should not count as a balancing factor for new offshore wind. It does not work as a counter to the farm.

Second, behavior should be governed primarily through policy and regulation, not through free markets. Left alone, markets rarely encourage sustainability or truly compensate for environmental damage. For example, there is evidence that increasing the amount of farmed fish on the free market does not reduce meat production.

Finally, large corporations should bear the brunt of the costs of global transactions. Encouraging small businesses often improves environmental justice while increasing local livelihoods and economic security by keeping owners and workers local. Similar to how income taxes work in much of the world, coverage requirements should be proportionately lower for these smaller businesses and progressively higher for larger businesses.

So what will this global deal look like? For example, to lease a new 100-square-kilometer offshore wind farm, a company would have to restore twice as much coastal habitat. This restored habitat should add to existing efforts to protect habitats, including the current global goal of protecting 30% of land and sea.

Alternatively, for new commercial offshore fish farms, sufficient land used for livestock must be permanently fallowed to remove an amount of livestock equivalent to the intended production of fish. Such “habitat credits” can be traded in the same way as carbon credits. Farmers receive tradable credits for each reduced head count and hectare. Aquaculture companies are required to purchase the credits to cover their increased fish production.

None of these options are politically easy — many would say that such policies and market regulations slow progress and could be bypassed by determined bad actors — But, in my opinion, we must embrace them.They require local, national and international coordination and enforcement, as well as public support. Science helps inform and monitor efficacy. Government agencies must decisively implement change. Promoting the blue economy without relieving human pressure on both land and sea will only cost the oceans without reaping global benefits. That’s perfectly fine.

competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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