From fishing and aquaculture to the generation of renewable energy, coastal tourism, biotechnology, desalination, research or maritime safety: all of this, and much more, is part of the so-called blue economy, which encompasses any related activity. with water, sea and oceans. Its tremendous size is witnessed by the fact that, if it were comparable to a national economy, it would be the seventh largest in the world, and the ocean would form part of the exclusive G-7. Its potential leaves little room for doubt: the traditional sectors of this economy alone provide, in the EU, 4.5 million direct jobs and 650,000 million euros in turnover; figures that rise to 5.4 million jobs (and a gross added value of 500,000 million euros per year) if all economic activities that in one way or another depend on the sea are included, according to a recent study by the European Comission.
These few data serve to justify why the blue economy, together with climate change and circular economy policies, will be essential to achieve the sustainable development goals set on the international agenda. “The European Green Deal calls for the transformation of our economy into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy, in which net greenhouse gas emissions are phased out and the EU’s natural capital is protected”, says Cristina Sánchez, executive director of the United Nations Global Compact in Spain. A purpose in which, he maintains, the blue economy must be instrumental, but which is not currently supported by the facts: “Sustainable Development Goal 14 established 10 ambitious goals for the protection and restoration of the oceans and, without However, it is the one that has received the least investment worldwide so far, and it was also the least prioritized by Spanish companies in 2022”, he adds.
Opportunities and R&D
The blue economy offers many opportunities for economic growth, whether through activities such as sustainable fishing, aquaculture, coastal tourism or oceanic renewable energy, which, for example (and according to industry sources) could already contribute in 2050 10% of current electricity needs in Europe. The prospects are rosy: “Spain is a power in the incipient floating solutions for offshore wind farms, and the European country with the most R&D facilities for floating wind power and other energies from the sea, such as the Canary Islands Oceanic Platform, the Vizcaya Marine Energy Platform or the experimental zone for the use of marine energy in Punta Langosteira (La Coruña), the second test bench in the world for wave energy”, explains Juan Alfaro, general secretary of the Sustainability Excellence Club. .
As in other areas of sustainable development, the role of research and innovation “is undoubtedly a fundamental lever when promoting solutions to the challenges demanded by the 2030 Agenda and, in this case, achieving responsible management of the ocean and water as a resource,” says Sánchez. Some advances that can be observed in sectors such as fishing and aquaculture, thanks to innovations such as selective nets or aquaponics systems (which combine the breeding of fish and plants in water); in the generation of renewable energy, thanks to the power of waves (wave energy), ocean currents or tides (tidal); a field that also enjoys great potential due to the abundance of coasts in Spain. Other sectors have to do with maritime transport, thanks to more efficient engines and more aerodynamic hulls; or blue biotechnology, which has become a continuous source of innovation and technological development based on marine resources, as Alfaro puts it: “Companies are constantly innovating with new products based on the principles of the circular economy, such as biorubbers made with algae for car tires or shoe soles, biofuels and, of course, medicines and cosmetic products”.
Another of the sectors where the potential for development is greater is that of coastal tourism; an industry that grows at a rate of 121,000 million euros per year and that is closely linked to proper management of the ocean. “Tourism activities linked to the sea and the coast can significantly contribute to the sustainable development of coastal regions and the conservation of their natural and cultural heritage”, recalls Sánchez. Thus, “beach tourism, diving tourism, sustainable fishing or nautical tourism can generate significant economic and social benefits for local communities, as long as it is done in a responsible and sustainable manner… In addition, one of the challenges is that companies in the sector begin to consider SDG 14 of underwater life as a business opportunity, something that currently does not happen”.
In the city of Gijón, for example, of the 8,264 direct jobs generated by the blue economy (which, in turn, represents 14.2% of employment in the city), 72.8% correspond to coastal tourism ; 12.4% to port activities; 7.2% to the exploitation and commercialization of fishing and aquaculture; and 4% to shipbuilding and maintenance. Support for innovation and research is materialized there through specific financing lines, advice, access to infrastructures and even the transfer of knowledge, through the Gijón Azul chair of the University of Oviedo. Various innovative projects have emerged from public-private collaboration in the city “such as the development of a prototype unmanned marine vehicle for cleaning marinas; a project for the breeding of bivalves in the surroundings of the port of Musel and the study of ocle residues for their later use as fertilizers”, Impulsa transmits from Gijón.
The go!ODS Awards, convened by the United Nations Global Compact (and which have just opened their fourth edition) reward the best sustainable innovation initiatives that aim to safeguard the integrity of the oceans. Among the winning projects, Sánchez highlights the project Bound4Blue, that it has developed a non-polluting alternative naval transportation system; and OrbitalEOS, of Global Omnium, which proposes an innovative marine pollution detection system.
Challenges and professional profiles
And what about the challenges of the blue economy? For Sánchez, there are three main challenges: increased pressure on marine ecosystems (including pollution, overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification); lack of investment in research and technology; and the lack of regulation and governance of the oceans, which can lead to overexploitation of resources and environmental degradation. Europe, however, has taken steps regarding this last point thanks to different regulations such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008), the Common Fisheries Policy (2013) or the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (2014), “although more efforts are still needed to ensure the sustainable management of the oceans”, he points out. From Fundación Alternativas they recall that, in addition to climate change and circular economy policies, maritime protection is essential: not in vain, and according to the EU estimates, for every euro invested in protected marine spaces, a return of at least three is generated. euro.
With the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda fully integrated into the international political agenda, many experts agree when it comes to pointing out the need to rethink the skills of all professionals from the perspective of sustainability and responsible resource management. Professionals who, Sánchez points out, “must be predisposed to collaborate with other like-minded, sectoral and even competing organizations, because the challenges of sustainable development cannot be faced alone. Currently, and according to our data, a third of Spanish companies are training their staff in matters related to this”.
In any case, the demand for professionals dedicated to the blue economy is as diverse as the sectors that make it up are varied. At the Vocational Training level, for example, technical profiles related to fishing and aquaculture, the maintenance of ships or facilities or renewable energy, among others, are sought; while, at the university level, careers related to Environmental or Naval Engineering are in high demand; the Sciences of the Sea; Biotechnology and/or robotics; Biochemistry; Biomedicine and even economists or lawyers specialized in maritime law. A demand that, moreover, “will continue to grow as new technologies are developed and economic activities at sea and on the coast expand,” says the head of the Global Compact.
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