To achieve equitable and sustainable oceans, policymakers must focus on social equity and governance before resources

New paper from Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center identifies areas of investments and research for five global regions to achieve a ‘Blue Economy’

The future of an equitable and sustainable global ocean, or “Blue Economy,” depends on more than the resources available for technological advancement and industry expansion. Analysis from the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center at UW EarthLab finds socioeconomic and governance conditions such as national stability, corruption and human rights greatly affect regional ability to achieve a Blue Economy.

Figure 1 Dimensions and criteria used to evaluate capacity to establish an equitable, sustainable, and viable Blue Economy (‘Blue Economy Capacity)


Factors for Blue Economy Capacity

Although there is consensus that an innovative approach is required to ensure the Blue Economy is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically viable, many organizations and decision makers are reverting to business-as-usual development practices. By focusing on where resources are and how to extract them, policymakers risk excluding people who most rely on the ocean for their livelihood from the decision-making process.

Building on publicly available global data, the study published in Nature scores criteria across five global regions: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. The study identifies the areas of investments and research across ’enabling conditions’ (Figure 1) necessary to develop available ocean resources in a manner consistent with a Blue Economy that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically viable. These enabling conditions include: corruption, economic and group equity, gender equality, human rights, biodiversity, habitat, water quality, infrastructure, investment and national stability.

“When people talk about the future of the ocean economy, there’s a lot of attention on the resources themselves, such as the fish, mangroves, offshore wind, and so on,” said lead author Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor, deputy director of the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center and research associate for the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.


“That’s great to know, but the most important question we need to be asking is, how are we going to make sure that we develop those resources in ways that actually benefit local communities? Otherwise we’re back to business-as-usual, where only a few benefit from ocean resources. This is what the Blue Economy is trying to change,” said Cisneros-Montemayor.


graphic of map and results
Figure 2: Distribution of dimension scores across oceans, regions, and development groups.


General Takeaways

  • • The main contributors to differences in Blue Economy Capacity between regions were not related to local ocean resources, but to enabling conditions such as human rights, national stability and corruption.
    • Ocean resources are distributed widely but patchily across the world, so not every place will be able to develop all ocean sectors, at least not at large scales. This means that we must think very carefully and involve local communities in deciding what ocean sectors are the most appropriate for a given place.
    • Recognizing and including a wide range of stakeholders and perspectives is a foundational step across all regions.
    • In Africa, interest has focused on resources like oil and seabed minerals, but those may not best support African development goals to support local livelihoods and increase food security, which requires capacity for coastal artisanal and small-scale fisheries (excluding mariculture).
    • In Central and South America, the importance of natural capital (richness of biodiversity and habitat quality) and a general interest in ecotourism and mariculture are commonly shared. However, their Blue Economy planning is still unclear of in very early stages. It will be important to reconcile goals and strategies between countries with shared colonial histories and current challenges for development aspirations, as well as financial capacity.
    • Asia had the widest gap between its dimension scores, with low “enabling conditions” scores and high resource availability in places like the Coral Triangle. Many national plans focus on sectors requiring built capital such as shipping and marine technology, but the values of coastal communities still lie in marine living resources — such as artisanal fisheries and mariculture, ecotourism, or carbon uptake — that could bring social benefits to rural areas.
    • The European Union has focused on large-scale infrastructure with business investments in sectors such as offshore wind energy and mariculture. While fisheries have recently been integrated into their Blue Economy planning, questions remain around the equity outcomes of growth-focused development, which could advance further capital consolidation.
    • Oceania — including Australia, New Zealand and island states in the South Pacific — has prioritized community objectives, traditional resource uses and emerging sectors that can be developed in accordance with local development goals. International support for these initiatives is important and useful only when their approaches ensure the support for local needs and cultures.

“When ocean or coastal development is planned, decision makers focus on available data to inform their decisions. The fact is, we have a lot more data about resources than about how development will actually impact the people who bear the risk and maintain the stewardship of the area,” said Yoshitaka Ota, director of the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center and professor of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. 

“This paper is our attempt to begin to gather the data for what we actually need to know and to begin the conversation about equity impacts with concrete terms and numbers. These are necessary steps to stop the dominant one-size-fits-all approach that ignores social implications and diverse values,” Ota added.

Last year, The Nippon Foundation and UW EarthLab launched the Ocean Nexus Center, a 10-year program that is committed to transforming ocean governance so oceans benefit everyone equitably. This research was developed by the interdisciplinary research network of Nippon Foundation Nereus Program and the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Center at UW EarthLab.

“The Nippon Foundation is committed to supporting the future of ocean sustainability. This new research helps us and other organizations see a holistic view of the oceans and the relationship with society beyond resources, so we can see the true potential and impact for human beings. I’m excited to say this is just the beginning of the work from the NF-UW Ocean Nexus Center,” said Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of The Nippon Foundation.

For more information, contact Andrés Cisneros-Montemayor at