The Blue Economy Could Save Our Oceans—and Our Species

BY Sam Laird Senior Content Writer Bank of the West

Jun 4th 2021

Courtney Boyd Myers describes herself as “that weirdo who was walking around the aisles of grocery stores being like, ‘Why are there no great seaweed products to eat?‘”

When she got tired of asking that question, things got weirder. She started making the very products she had such a hard time finding, things like kelp jerky, kelp pasta, kelp burgers.

Boyd Myers is co-founder of Akua, a startup that seeks to transform what she calls “seagreens” into a mainstream food source. Boyd Myers is part of a burgeoning movement that is harnessing the ocean for profit but, more importantly, racing to protect oceans, which are vital in the fight against global warming.

Kelp—yes, that greenish-brown stuff that grows in coastal waters around the world—is packed with nutrients. The fast-growing plant is low in fat and calories, and a great source of calcium, iron, fiber, and more. It even helps counter the burning of fossil fuels by absorbing carbon to reduce ocean acidification, which harms coral, shellfish, and other marine life.

In short, kelp is healthy for humans and for the planet. Which is why Boyd Myers is so passionate about farming it and selling it.

“You don’t require fresh water, dry land, fertilizer, or feed to grow food abundantly—which, in the context of climate change, is huge,” she said in a recent discussion about the ocean, the economy, and sustainability. “These farms are basically sequestering carbon out of the water, helping to mitigate the effects of acidification locally. They’re also increasing biodiversity, so playing a small but important part in restoring health to ocean ecosystems.”

So…underwater agriculture that regenerates the ocean? Yes, but there’s more. Boyd Myers hopes to use people’s stomachs to reach their minds with an overlooked food to spark bigger thoughts around living sustainably amid a climate emergency.

“The ocean is vital. It’s actually been buffering climate change for us, and that’s a tremendous service.”

—Dr. Julie Pullen

“Every time you try a kelp burger—yes, you’re being satiated, and yes, it’s delicious,” she said. “But what else is sort of moving up there [in your mind] and changing, and how will that affect other activities in your daily life?”

Kelp lives in the ocean, which covers more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface and acts as a massive carbon sink, absorbing nearly one-third of human CO2 emissions. The ocean regulates our climate and helps provide oxygen for us to breathe. It is integral to the global economy; 80 percent of global trade by volume and 70 percent of global trade by value is transported by sea at some point.

“The ocean is vital,” Dr. Julie Pullen, an oceanographer and co-founder of Women Power Our Planet, which works to mobilize women around climate solutions, said in an interview. “It’s actually been buffering climate change for us, and that’s a tremendous service.”

At the same time, the ocean is under tremendous strain thanks to humans. Pollution, acidification, and rising temperatures all threaten a delicate balance upon which all of us rely but many of us seldom really consider.

That’s where the “Blue Economy” comes in, characterized by products like Akua’s kelp jerky. But what is the Blue Economy?

The Blue Economy entails stewardship, unlike the “ocean economy,” which refers broadly to commerce that uses the sea, according to Vanessa Fajans-Turner, a principal at Investable Oceans, which works to bring financing to projects that support ocean health. The Blue Economy “specifically references companies that are working to increase the sustainability of our ocean business and industry,” she said in a recent joint event with Women Power Our Planet.

Think of it as the green economy for the deep blue sea. The Blue Economy aims to answer a simple but essential question: Given all the ways the ocean supports human life and economic activity, how can we make sure to support the ocean in a sustainable way?

Plastic Soup, Cold Blobs, and Acidification

Humans have been using the ocean to move and trade goods for some 5,000 years, ever since inhabitants of modern-day India and Pakistan established routes along the Arabian Sea. Now fast-forward to modern times: The global ocean economy—which spans industries including shipping, tourism, commercial fishing, recreation, and energy—is projected to reach a value of $3 trillion by 2030, which would roughly double its 2018 size.

This infographic from NOAA shows the diverse industries that make up the U.S.’s Marine Economy. Numbers reflect 2018 data.

But all that economic growth, coupled with continued industrial churn on land, could bring disastrous side effects if not carefully managed. Take plastic, for example. Some 17.6 billion pounds of plastic finds its way—or gets outright dumped—into the ocean every year. Environmentalist and sailor Charles Moore described one patch of the Pacific as “a thin plastic soup, a soup lightly seasoned with plastic flakes, bulked out here and there with ‘dumplings’: buoys, net clumps, floats, crates, and other ‘macro debris.'”

So, how did we get to this point? It’s a combination of things. Experts say curbing single-use plastic products would have a massively positive impact. But perhaps less obvious factors play a role, too. Think of how often we say, “Oh, just throw that away,” with zero thought about what happens next.

“Just because we throw it away that doesn’t mean it’s really away,” Dr. Kristin Hull, founder of Nia, a financial firm that invests in socially and environmentally responsible companies, said in conversation with Investable Oceans and Women Power Our Planet. “It actually has gone somewhere and it’s affecting something.”

But litter is just one of many concerning ocean trends to have developed approximately 50 centuries after maritime trade was first conducted along the Arabian Sea. Other prominent threats to the ocean—and by extension, to the climate, and to the economy, and to society as a whole—include:

  • Slowing Currents: Scientific evidence suggests deep ocean currents are slowing due to the planet’s warming climate. This has contributed to a languishing “cold blob” in the North Atlantic and could presage what one scientist described to The New York Times as “just a monstrous change” in the planet’s overall climate. That change could include faster sea level rise in parts of Europe and the U.S., stronger hurricanes, and reduced rainfall in Africa’s already-tumultuous Sahel region.
  • Excess carbon dioxide, primarily from fossil fuels, has led to increased ocean acidification. Acidification makes it harder for coral to grow and repair itself, and reduces the ability of animals like crabs and clams to create their shells. Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco dubbed this “climate change’s equally evil twin” more than a decade ago. Acidification could have a dramatic effect on marine ecosystems and food chains—up to and including humans.
  • Underwater Heatwaves: Marine heatwaves can harm ocean ecosystems starting at the bottom of the food chain. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these events can cause zooplankton to be smaller and less nutritious, which then affects the birds, fish, and mammals that feed on zooplankton. Marine heatwaves can also cause harmful algae blooms, which can hurt sea animals and negatively impact commercial fishing.
  • Stronger Storms: Warming oceans have been shown to cause stronger hurricanes. Last year saw a record 13 Atlantic hurricanes and six classified as major hurricanes, double the historical average of six hurricanes and three major hurricanes per season.

 

“[The Blue Economy] is where the Green Economy or the Climate Economy was 20 years ago.

—Vanessa Fajans-Turner

Despite the surfeit of ominous trends, Fajans-Turner called right now “an exciting moment for the Blue Economy”—a time when money and support is flowing toward solutions. She pointed to “a growing number of incubators that are attracting and inviting young sustainable oceans startups to get a leg up,” as well as an increasing number of ocean-focused impact funds that are directing more investment and capital toward ocean sustainability.

“But all of this is still at a relatively small stage,” Fajans-Turner said. “It’s where the Green Economy or the Climate Economy was, say, 20 years ago.”

Plastic soup, cold blobs, and acidifying water don’t paint a happy picture. But potential solutions abound. The question is whether, through a Blue Economy, humans can unlock them.

Saving the Seas: Major-Scale Solutions

Unlocking solutions and growing the Blue Economy—not just the ocean economy—will require innovation. And it’s hard to imagine a material more innovative than the textiles developed by startup Tandem Repeat.

The story starts with squids. Let CEO Dr. Gozde Senel-Ayaz explain.

“On the tentacles of squids there is a unique protein that has the same properties as plastic,” she said. “So we cloned the respective gene and, via fermentation, we are producing our materials—as we call it, Squitex.”

No squids are harmed to make Squitex, a material that can self-heal when pressure and water are applied. Dr. Senel-Ayaz and her team are currently focused on applying Squitex as an adhesive to replace plastic-based reinforcement when assembling clothes, and as a replacement for petroleum-based synthetics used in skincare products.

Instead of using plastic-based reinforcement in clothing, this jacket uses Squitex, a nature-based adhesive made from proteins found on squid tentacles. No squids are harmed to make Squitex.

Products like Squitex could contribute to a circular economy and reduce the amount of plastic that finds its way into, well, nearly everything—oceans included. But the Tandem Repeat team is also pragmatic about what sells.

“Brands and consumers don’t want to give up already-existing properties in current products,” said Dr. Senel-Ayaz. “It is very important to mimic the current products and add advanced properties such as self-healing to give them a competitive edge.”

Far-out science is just one piece of the Blue Economy. Another area of opportunity comes from the concentration of economic activity on the oceans.

“Currently only 100 companies account for half of the entire revenue from the ocean economy,” Fajans-Turner said. “It’s already extremely concentrated, and if we are able to work with some of those companies or integrate new technologies into some of those economies, we can transform the sustainability of the broader ocean economy much more quickly.”

One more piece of the puzzle could be doubling down on entrepreneurs like Boyd Meyers and Dr. Senel-Ayaz. Which is to say: women. A recent report by BNP Paribas found that 54 percent of women entrepreneurs say that, beyond financial returns, reducing their carbon footprint is their top measure of success in investing. That’s compared to just 41 percent of their male peers. This dynamic matches Dr. Hull’s own observations.

“It turns out that women, as far as stereotypes go, really do think about the long term,” she said. “And men, as far as stereotypes go, think about the short term. So having everybody together in the same room really is going to mean better decisions over the long term.”

As with so many sustainability efforts, long-term thinking and long-term stability are what a Blue Economy is really all about.

How to Have an Everyday Impact

There is no one body that rules the ocean, but rather an interconnected set of national and international regulations that govern the sea. At the same time, everyday people across the world can also play a role in molding the ocean economy into a truly sustainable Blue Economy that serves generations to come.

The U.S. has laws that protect the ocean, as do other countries. And the United Nations has laws and treaties to do the same. Like all laws, however, these are often broken for reasons ranging from greed to desperation. Activities from poaching to illegal polluting harm turtles, whales, and other sea animals.

Meanwhile, activists and nongovernmental organizations also work to promote ocean conservation. For example, an initiative launched in April of this year aims to conserve 7 million square miles of ocean—a chunk that is about twice as big as the U.S. and yet still only represents 5 percent of the ocean’s total area.

The job of protecting the oceans is enormous. So, similar to climate and other areas of environmental stewardship, money and finance play a big role—which is where everyday people can come in.

“We are going to get the economy that we invest into,” said Dr. Hull. This makes it critical to “be conscious about our investments and be driving our dollars toward the companies that are going to steward our Earth and create impactful and inclusive communities.”

That can apply to where you bank, because up to 90 percent of customer deposits are used to finance things like homes, automobile purchases, and business expansion projects. It can also apply to one’s individual investments. Many investors often have no idea that their portfolios could include companies or industries involved in activities contrary to their own personal values. This is where Dr. Hull’s company Nia tries to help clients “really own what they own.”

“It’s the same thing with the Blue Economy, really inviting people to be conscious about moving away from an index that will hold 500 or 2,000 or 3,000 companies and into a more concentrated portfolio where you can really know what you own and then be so proud of knowing what you own,” she said.

You might even end up owning shares some day of a company that makes burgers from kelp, or perhaps a company in the future that clones genes from squid tentacles to create a new type of textile.

Said Dr. Hull: “We’re living a time when we need all hands on deck and all minds at the table.”

Because when it comes to creating a Blue Economy and a sustainable world, there are few ideas too radical to consider and there’s no time to waste.

“Some of the tipping points, we just don’t know what those limits are,” Dr. Pullen said. “So the best course of action is really just to recognize that every moment matters. As quickly as we can undertake sustained climate action, the better off humanity is going to be in creating a life-supporting planet for our children and their children.”

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Sam Laird Senior Content Writer Bank of the West

Sam joined Bank of the West in 2019 after more than 10 years in journalism. He’s also worked as a teacher, a grant writer, and a janitor, and prefers to spend his free time in nature.

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