Growing the blue economy sustainably

Europe's World

Picture of Karmenu Vella
Karmenu Vella

European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs & Fisheries

Karmenu Vella is European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries

When you are born on an island, you are hardly surprised to learn that 70% of the Earth’s surface is water or that more than 40% of the world’s population lives and works in coastal areas.

Whether it is a question of fisheries or aquaculture, tourism or transport, ocean energy or blue biotech, the ocean has plenty of potential to become a real economic powerhouse. In fact, by 2030, the global blue economy is set to grow at twice the rate of the mainstream economy. For Europe, this could mean 10.8 million jobs and nearly €1 trillion in turnover.

While this is good news for Europe’s coastal communities, we also need to make sure that Europe’s marine ecosystems do not pay the price. That is why blue growth, the sustainable development of the maritime economy, is an important priority for me personally, and for the European Commission in general.

Economy and environment go hand in hand, at land and at sea. As any fisherman will tell you, healthy levels of fish mean viable fleets and thriving coastal communities. Ending overfishing is therefore one of the key objectives of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. And we are making good progress. In 2009, we were fishing a mere five stocks at sustainable levels in the East Atlantic, North and Baltic Seas. Less than a decade later, that number has risen to 53 out of 76.

Economy and environment go hand in hand, at land and at sea

Fishermen are reaping the rewards. In 2015 – the last year for which we have data – the EU fleets registered record-high net profits of almost €800 million. This represents a 60% increase in a mere two years, making fisheries one of the EU’s strongest growing economic sectors. This positive trend has also resulted in higher salaries for many EU fishermen and more value added for the EU’s fishing and coastal communities. We expect the positive news to continue in 2018.

It is true, however, that these benefits are not distributed evenly across Europe. In the Mediterranean and the Black Sea overfishing remains prevalent, and faced with severely depleted fish stocks, many coastal communities are feeling the pinch. That is why last year the European Commission led the charge for change. Our MedFish4Ever Declaration, signed by 16 EU and non-EU Mediterranean countries and covering 75% of the Mediterranean fleet, is not just a high-level symbol of political will, but above all a programme for ambitious but workable action on the ground.

Beyond traditional sectors like fisheries, new economic opportunities have sprung up. Over the last two decades, the offshore wind sector has developed into an industry with enormous potential that can survive without public funding. In Europe alone this industry has created 160 000 jobs in 2016, from 20 000 in 2008. We are determined to ensure that ocean energy, a cutting-edge sector in which the EU is world leader, follows a comparable path.

Similarly, seafood products farmed in the EU are reaching their highest values ever registered, over €4 billion. The blue bio-economy is producing novel ingredients for healthcare and pharmaceutical products, and much more. In the EU and in several Member States, the blue economy has performed much better than general economy in the last decade.

Many of these promising blue economy ideas need external funding to move from the drawing board to the market. That is why attracting investments is one of my absolute priorities. The European Commission is working to set up a “blue-green investment platform” to channel private and public money to maritime projects that promise both economic profit and environmental gains, but that are generally too small or too risky to rely on financial markets alone. We are also organising a first-ever matchmaking event between blue economy entrepreneurs and investors on 17 May.

Building the road towards a green, blue planet requires everyone’s support

Getting the most out of our oceans requires protecting them and keeping them in good shape. Starting at home, for example by reducing the amount of marine litter coming from single-use plastics, abandoned or lost fishing gear or other sources. The EU Plastics Strategy published earlier this year is a step to getting our own house in order.

But pressures like overfishing, marine pollution or climate change know no borders. If we want healthy oceans in Europe, we need to bring our international partners on board and make sure waters beyond Europe are well managed too.

In October last year, the European Commission hosted the fourth edition of the international ‘Our Ocean Conference’ in Malta. What we achieved there is unprecedented: leaders from government, business and civil society made over 400 new commitments worth more than €7 billion to support safe, sustainable and healthy oceans. The EU itself announced 36 tangible commitments worth over €550 million.

The EU is also consistently putting oceans high onto the international agenda: be it the recent international agreement on a moratorium for fishing in the Central Arctic Sea, banning seafood imports from countries that engage in illegal fishing, or working with our international partners to protect biodiversity in the high seas.

Compared to a few decades ago, we have come a long way. Stocks are recovering, coastal communities are diversifying their economic activities, and our awareness of the need to take care of our natural resources and ecosystems has grown. But we still have a long way to go: building the road towards a green, blue planet requires everyone’s support.

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