The OECD defines the ocean economy as ocean-based industries together with the natural assets and ecosystem services this provides(1). As such, the ocean economy encompasses established sectors (fishing, transport, coastal tourism, etc.) and more recent or emerging sectors, often characterised by a considerable technological dimension. The ocean economy has seen considerable expansion: from 1,500 billion USD in 2010, it is forecast to reach 3,000 billion by 2030. However, this growth is under threat from damage to marine environments, linked to pollution from land-based activities and to climate change.

Established Sectors

Among the established ocean economy sectors are Fishing / Aquaculture / Seafood Products. Sales of fish represent 150 billion USD and almost one human in five (17% of the world’s population) depends on fish(2). To this can be added offshore oil and gas exploitation. Today, 30% of oil and 27% of gas are produced offshore, representing respectively 20% and 40% of known world reserves. Port infrastructures and activities make up another significant sector, with at least 90% of international trade carried by sea. Ship building and transport come next, the first representing €91 billion in Europe in 2016, including 9.5 billion in France. The global volume of shipping reached 10.7 billion tonnes in 2017 (up 4% on 2016). Finally, another ‘historical’ sector in the ocean economy is coastal tourism, representing a worldwide market worth 161 billion USD with, amongst others, a fast-growing market for cruises.

Across the 28 countries in the EU, these six “established” sectors earned €566.2 billion in revenues in 2016 (so +7.2% compared to 2009) and generated 3.5 million jobs (+2.2% compared to 2009). More globally, the ocean economy contributed 1.3% to the GDP and 1.6% of jobs(3).

More Recent or Emerging Sectors

Faced with the appearance of new activities at sea and on the coast, but also to respond to new needs, new sectors have recently appeared or are emerging. They are usually characterised by the benefits of scientific progress and technology (e.g.: innovations in submarine engineering and technology, sensors and imaging, satellite observation, data digitalisation and analysis and autonomous systems).

That’s particularly the case for marine renewable energies (floating or fixed wind turbines, wave, current or tidal energy, ocean thermal energy, etc.) While the theoretical potential is estimated at 2 million TWh per year, only 100,000 TWh are currently exploitable.

Another high-potential sector is marine biotechnologies. Used in health, nutrition, chemicals, energy and materials, they represent a worldwide market of 2.8 billion USD and are seeing 12% growth per year.

Two other sectors are among those meeting new needs: marine and seabed mining and desalination.  According to estimates, by the year 2030 marine minerals will represent 10% of world production in a 10 billion USD market. These minerals (cobalt, iron, manganese, platinum, nickel, rare earths, gold, silver, etc.) for the most part have considerable applications in new technologies. For its part, desalination could provide freshwater in regions where access is limited. According to a recent study(3), the 15,906 operational plants around the world produce 95.3 million cubic meters of water per day, almost half (48%) of which in the Middle East and North Africa.

Another emerging sector is coastal and environmental protection (e.g. integrated maritime surveillance, combating erosion, coastline management, risk prevention or management equipment, etc.). Here again, the most recent technologies are of the utmost importance in imaging whether from exploiting satellite data or from every kind of drone.

Finally, one sector sits at the crossroads of established and emerging sectors, in the sense that it has existed for over a century but today regulates much of our modern world: submarine pipes and cables. Submarine optic fibre cables alone carry nearly 99% of worldwide communications (telephone and internet), the rest being provided by satellite. Forming both critical and strategic infrastructure, 300 cables currently crisscross the seabed over almost one million km and up to 8.5 km deep. On top of that are almost 8,000 km of energy cables and 200,000 km of pipelines.

Towards Sustainable Blue Growth

It is apparent that in order to continue to grow, the ocean economy needs to eliminate the ever-growing risks threatening ocean health. It needs to cope with pollution from activities both land-based (agricultural run-off, chemical products, plastics and micro-plastics, etc.) and maritime (ship discharges, port activities, spillages, etc.) as well as those from climate change (acidification, rise in sea temperatures and levels, changes to ocean currents, etc.). All of this, made worse by over-fishing, results in decline in biodiversity, habitat loss, change to fishing resources, coastal erosion and increasingly extreme oceanic phenomena.coastlines

The ocean economy can no longer be treated as just another economic sector. It must instead answer a much wider perspective that many are calling Blue Growth (or sustainable blue growth) that is a version of the environmental challenges of the green economy. Moving towards sustainable blue growth means reconciling development in the maritime economy with the challenges and imperatives of environmental protection and combating climate change. That could help to halt biodiversity loss, promote mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and limit pressure on natural resources while preserving competitiveness. As such, advances in science and technology are of critical importance. Cleaner transport, ports and infrastructures committed to TEE, safer, cleaner and more energy-efficient ships, digital and satellite technologies, more responsible use of resources, marine renewable energies, more environmentally friendly coastal development, and so on… There are many avenues to explore.


1) Report The Ocean Economy in 2030, OECD 2016.

2) Unless otherwise stated, the figures quoted here come from data from the Cluster Maritime Français (CMF).

3) Annual Economic Report on the EU Blue Economy – 2018 Edition, European Commission, June 2018. This report follows on from the 2012 communication “Blue Growth Opportunities for Marine Sustainable Growth” and the 2017 report “Blue Growth Strategy”.

4) Study The State of Desalination and Brine Production: A Global Outlook, Sciences of the Total Environment, March 2019.

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