How Past Can Guide Our Stewardship of Tomorrow’s Sustainable Oceans

Emily Klein of BU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Bryony Caswell of the University of Hull, and Ruth Thurstan of the University of Exeter are the co-lead authors of a recent study published in Fish and Fisheries. The paper describes the efforts of an international team of 30 researchers who, turning to historical sources, discovered that the trendy sustainable marine management strategy known as “blue growth” isn’t such a brand new idea after all.

Many of us have heard of the Green New Deal and the “green economy”-but on a planet whose surface is 70 percent ocean, are there comparable plans for our seas? “Blue growth” is emerging as such a strategy, aimed at maintaining and even expanding the economic benefits we derive from the oceans in a sustainable, integrated, and equitable way. It is also often touted as a new concept beyond “business as usual” for marine management and stewardship. But what’s the roadmap forward look like?

As an international and interdisciplinary collaboration of ecologists, biologists, historians, and fisheries scientists, we wondered: is the idea of blue growth indeed new? And, if not, does our global past hold lessons for blue growth today? Our team of approximately 30 researchers turned to history to find out.

First, we had to establish our working definition of blue growth. Building on guidelines from the European Union (EU) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we defined four critical pillars of blue growth: (1) achieving growth of marine economies while minimizing impacts; (2) balancing ocean resource use, equitable access, efficient supply chains, and ecological well-being; (3) implementing smart solutions via human innovation; and (4) achieving integration across sectors, regions, and stakeholders.

Once we knew what we were looking for, we dove into archives of the past, searching for records of human communities that had previously achieved blue growth by meeting two or more of our pillars. What we found, now published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, was 20 historical blue growth examples in fisheries or aquaculture (the farming of fish or seaweed), across 13 countries, spanning time frames of between 40 and 800 years. From mixed fisheries in the Lagoon of Venice to Japanese nori aquaculture and the dugong fisheries of Australia, blue growth has been achieved, maintained-and lost-time and time again in the past.

A graph of Locations of 20 historical case studies
Locations of the 20 historical case studies (a) the researchers analyzed, and the time period that each case study spanned (b), together with a key showing whether the case study refers to single-species or mixed-species wild-capture fishery or aquaculture. Courtesy Caswell, et. al

But what can this history teach us about blue growth today? Across all these examples, we distilled lessons of success-and of failure-that applied across disparate areas, time periods, and systems. History underlines for us the importance of spatial, temporal, and economic scale, prioritizing long-term perspectives over short-term gains, and accounting for outside factors-such as war, disease, and other markets and sectors. It also shows that blue growth can be unpredictable and difficult to maintain once achieved, and that it may not provide equal benefits to all people. For instance, communities with less economic and political power are likely to be pushed aside unless their needs are explicitly considered.

Blue growth must also be driven by people from the ground up, and we found that social norms, community buy-in on regulations, and equitable engagement and access were fundamental to success. Looking to the past also reveals to us that it may not be possible to achieve all four pillars of blue growth simultaneously or over time. Therefore, alongside our finding that benefits could be unequal, we will need to prioritize goals and consider the different needs of various community members up front when designing blue growth strategies today.

Many of the lessons were unsurprising to us; indeed we found them well reflected in the scientific literature. However, we also discovered they were not well reflected in either the EU or FAO blue growth agendas, revealing critical gaps in how we are actively planning for international blue growth today.

We know the old adage of being bound to repeat a forgotten past. With our oceans of increasing importance, from food security to biodiversity, ensuring wise future ocean stewardship is critical. History shows us we can achieve blue growth-and has much to offer in helping us avoid past mistakes.

This research was supported by a Marie Skłodowska‐Curie Actions grant, the European Cooperation in Science and Technology, Griffith University, University of Strathclyde, and the Russian Science Foundation.

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