Identifying essential conditions and missing links for a sustainable blue economy

By Holly Niner, Sian Rees, Elisa Morgera

The One Ocean Hub researchers recently published an article summarising the results of a collaborative and interdisciplinary analysis of how sustainability is (or is not) reflected in existing and emerging blue economy policy. This involved 15 researchers, internal and external to the One Ocean Hub, who represented different disciplines (law, policy, ecology, sociology, economics, business, anthropology, fisheries sciences) and varying professional and personal experience from across the world. The research was led by early-career researcher Holly Niner (University of Plymouth, UK). This blog post summarises the key findings of the study, illustrates the innovative methodology behind the study, and reflects on how other Hub research will build upon this article.

Sustainable blue economies need to be co-produced

The blue economy concept has roots in international debates on sustainable development and in principle sets out to unlock opportunities for economy and society whilst protecting and enhancing marine environments. To date there has been no analysis of how this overarching intention for sustainability has influenced the rapid development of blue economy policies at national and regional scales. In this article, Hub researchers and others have analysed synergies and conflicts between blue economy policies from a diversity of national and regional policies and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

An overarching conclusion we reached was that blue economies are not inherently sustainable and, as found in previous analyses, are developing to meet high-level political demands or aspirations but rarely the needs of those enacting and affected by the progression of blue economies at a local level.

The main conclusions of this analysis are summarised by the following points:

  • National blue economies are strongly influenced by international aspirations for sustainability, but the translation of these international aims to national actions remains limited.
  • Currently blue economies cannot be considered as inherently aligned with the SDGs as they lack a ‘sustainability framing’.
  • National blue economy approaches focus on technical solutions that do not address systemic and complex tensions, such as balance between securitisation of the ocean for management purposes and issues of appropriation and justice (SDG 16), or gender equality (SDG 5).
  • Weak spots that allow extractive interpretations to proliferate, arise where definition of (policy) concepts or aims are ambiguous, and because of poor understanding of how sustainability creates value within society.

Progress towards both the SDGs and sustainable blue economies are dependent on representative and equitable governance. Historic arrangements that exclude and marginalise certain sectors of society, and desires for economic-focussed growth can undermine the sustainability of blue economies. Thus, we concluded that inclusive governance (SDGs 16 and 17) is essential for developing sustainable blue economies:

  • National blue economy policies need to be informed by understanding of local contexts through genuine public participation, so that they can meet the needs of all actors (SDG 16).
  • co-production is essential to achieve sustainable blue economies that facilitate the cooperation needed to match governance with the temporal and spatial scales at which ecological processes and functions support biodiversity (SDG 15.9).
  • National blue economy policies need to be flexible to respond and adjust to current and future challenges posed by climate change (SDG 13).

In response to this, and through repeated consideration of what is meant by equitable and representative governance, capacity building was identified as a critical foundation for the development of blue economies that can respond to the needs of those directly involved in blue economies.

  • Capacity development to address complex societal issues and support participation in blue economies is weakly supported by blue economy policies.
  • Capacity development is needed at all levels to support effective and equitable governance (SDGs 16.7 and 17.9).


The methodology applied enabled a systematic analysis of the interaction between blue economy policies and the SDGs. A series of sixteen blue economy aims was distilled through a review of global policy, the relationship of these aims to sustainability as framed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was considered in a series of workshops. Facilitated discussion allowed participants to classify according to a scale, the nature of interactions between the blue economy policy aims and the SDGs. Workshop participants were asked to discuss each relationship considering the question “If there is a progress towards aim/target/goal x, how would aim/target/goal y react”. As an example, one question considered how progress towards a blue economy aim of ’economic growth’ would influence the SDG target of increasing the lowest incomes (SDG 10.1). Through exploration of the influence of progress towards blue economy aim types on the SDGs and vice versa participants drew on professional and personal perceptions and experiences to reach consensus on the most likely classification (ranging from indivisible to cancelling) for the interaction.

This deliberative method for policy analysis supports an in-depth contextualisation of policies, which can draw on the varied backgrounds of participants. For this analysis, coauthors (i.e. participants) were all professionally engaged in marine governance from across the world. This range of perspectives and experiences allowed for a rich discussion exploring the contextual differences in the practical interpretation of policy. While creating a vast amount of quantitative data through which to objectively assess policy (i.e. the classification of interactions), this method also produces a qualitative analysis of policy and provides a useful tool to examine the varied ways that policies can be interpreted and applied.


Our findings that highlight the tensions between international sustainability objectives and national blue economy policies have legal implications. This issue is unveiled in an earlier piece of our international law research undertaken as part of the One Ocean Hub,  where we explain how blue economy policies may restrict opportunities for national governments and judiciary to protect local communities’ interests and the environment, because of separate international obligations to protect the legitimate expectations of foreign investors (SDG 17.5). One Ocean Hub researchers are now connecting these findings with empirical assessments of the negative impacts of blue economy activities on cultural heritage (SDG 11.4) and small-scale fishers’ access to resources and markets (SDG 14b) in South Africa, Ghana and Namibia.

Other work of the One Ocean Hub responds to our finding of the foundational need for capacity building to support the participation and representation of all sectors of society for sustainable ocean governance. Researchers are considering how transdisciplinarity and co-production can inform models of ocean sustainability and justice, notably through piloting human rights-based and arts-based approaches (see here and here). In considering the interface between law, natural and social sciences, and governance among other disciplines the One Ocean Hub also seeks to challenge historical modes of management that have not comprehensively considered the full range of values of marine environments including intangible connections, and the needs of those most dependent on marine environments (SDG 15.9). An example of this is the research being led by the University of Plymouth to make visible the full range of values of the deep sea (e.g. ecosystem services) and areas beyond national jurisdiction that can be integrated into the ongoing development of governance for these areas, as well as taken into account at the national level, with a view to integrating understanding of the importance of a healthy ocean for the protection of human rights.