Strategic research gaps for addressing complex trade-offs in the Blue Economy

By Dr Senia Febrica, Professor Elisa Morgera, Dr Sian Rees, Dr Holly Niner, and Ms Mara Ntona

Fisherfolks in Ghana. Credit: Shutterstock

The One Ocean Hub has brought together insights from law, political sciences and ecosystem services to develop a research agenda for addressing complex trade-offs in decision-making on the blue economy, such as economic growth and jobs creation versus livelihoods, the needs of industry and the needs of society (recognising that they may not be the same).

This blog post summarizes the key points made in a written submission that was produced collaboratively by Professor Elisa Morgera, Dr Sian Rees, Dr Holly Niner, Ms Mara Ntona, and Dr Senia Febrica to respond to a call for feedback by the European Union on Horizon Europe candidate partnership ‘A climate neutral, sustainable and productive Blue Economy’ Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda. The EU Blue Economy partnership is envisaged as a co-funded partnership under the Horizon Europe Research & Innovation (R&I) framework programme 2021-27. The submission made contributions on the following four pillars, according to which this post will be structured:

  • A Blue Economy in harmony with nature;
  • Blue Economy solutions towards climate neutrality;
  • A Blue Economy for the people; and
  • Integrated, responsible ocean governance.

Blue Economy in harmony with nature

Human rights as a research gap: We considered that a research objective was missing in the EU proposal – how to inform decision-making on the blue economy in ways that takes into account the inter-dependencies of basic human rights and a healthy ocean? We need to advance understanding of the state and determinants of health of marine ecosystems, as well as the dependence of human lives, health and livelihoods (i.e. basic human rights) from them, for a sustainable blue economy. To that end, ocean research requires the integration of natural and social sciences, and the inclusion of diverse knowledge systems and values.

Society as part of “knowledge of marine ecosystems”: human societies are part and parcel of the ecosystems. Socio-cultural issues are considered under the ecosystem approach and should not therefore be considered as separate from the blue economy. There is, in effect, a need to acknowledge the lessons learnt as to why “perfect science” has not led to “perfect decisions” in the past: science should be seen as part of the soft governance required to co-develop fair partnerships for a sustainable and inclusive blue economy. In our experience, the ways in which we “do science” are critical to lead to more inclusive and sustainable blue-economy decisions down the line: early setting of research objectives with non-academic partners and human rights-holders, and developing of an iterative approach to research that can respond to the evolving understanding of societal needs (and the variety of needs within society) – see the Hub’s Code of Practice.

Blue Economy solutions towards climate neutrality

Research for multiple scales of governance: To develop just pathways towards climate neutrality and for a blue economy more generally, we need to understand what “the ocean we want” at different scales, with an emphasis on the local level. To support resilient and sustainable coastal communities, we need to ensure that their multifaceted connections with blue spaces are respected and fostered, and create an enabling environment for the formulation of shared visions for the blue economy. These visions can then feed into transnational, national, and supranational governance at which commitments for emissions reductions are likely to be agreed.

Joining up land-based and blue economies: It is also at the local level that we must, at least in the first instance, consider land-sea interactions, seeing as coasts constitute a key point of encounter and interaction between the blue economy and associated landward sectors. A case in point is the implementation of participatory, place-based models of offshore renewable energy development to ensure that decisions address energy poverty and to provide communities with full and fair access to markets, as well as take into account concerns related to marine biodiversity and other related human rights (for instance, communities’ cultural rights). Another is the development of blue carbon, which can be pursued in such a way as to create synergies between blue economy opportunities (e.g., boosting aquaculture) and environment protection needs (e.g., combatting coastline erosion), but needs to take into account any potential negative impacts on human rights that may be dependent on marine biodiversity.

Need for caution around ‘vulnerability’, ‘resilience’ and ‘just transition’: a participatory process is needed to avoid abstract notions or concepts that are taken for granted but might not fit specific contexts. To that end, ocean research needs to contribute to multi-stakeholder processes that co-define the content of vulnerability, resilience and just transition in context as a matter of priority. This is necessary to develop sufficient understanding of the potentially different ways in which these concepts play out at the EU, regional and sub-regional levels. Research can support such a process also by identifying tensions and potential trade-offs (thanks to inter- and trans-disciplinarity) between different measures taken to achieve climate neutrality, including trade-offs for biodiversity and inter-dependent human rights.

A Blue Economy for the people

Gender discrimination: in our analysis of blue economy policies and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have found weak synergies with gender and gender equality, for instance; this was largely because gender equality and ‘empowerment’ (as described by the SDGs) necessitate context to be understood appropriately (Niner et al., in prep) and are challenging to address at a range of scales. Along similar lines, gender equality was only mentioned once in the draft EU proposal. More specific expectations should be set on the role of ocean research in addressing appropriately and systematically gender (and other grounds for) equality. For instance, the funder of the One Ocean Hub (the UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund) has made the submission of a Gender Equality Statement a compulsory requirement for funded research projects. In this statement, applicants must outline how they have taken meaningful yet proportionate consideration as to how the project will contribute to reducing gender inequalities. In addition, gender equality is a key aspect of the Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning framework that each Hub needs to develop, and a key aspect on which the Hub needs to report on an annual basis. Non-discrimination, based on gender or other grounds, is also a crucial element to ensure that the blue economy is supportive of the inter-dependence of basic human rights and a healthy ocean, including the human right to health (see also here).

Integrated, responsible ocean governance

Priority objectives: Research on integrated and responsible ocean governance should: (1) develop understanding of natural capital to be integrated into decision making; (2) fully integrate society (including different communities, women and youth) into the understanding of ecosystems, ecosystem services and dependent human rights; and (3) recognise different types and scales of governance and how these can be supported to deliver aims of/for blue economy (e.g. Raakjaer et al., 2014).

Knowledge Co-creation: There is a need to go beyond the “usual suspects” that routinely participate in public consultations, and include varied stakeholders, and all relevant human rights-holders, including small-scale fishing communities, indigenous communities, women and children who often are not able to participate in public consultations. Ocean research can serve as the very first step of genuine participation in decision-making (ensuring participation in the production of the evidence base for decision-making), so transdisciplinary research should be understood as part of partnership-building the context of the blue economy. Specific expectations should therefore be set on the role of ocean research in terms of knowledge co-development. For instance, the One Ocean Hub’s Code of Practice explains how the Hub has engaged in co-development with stakeholders through an initial stage of the research that consists of contextual research-agenda setting by co-identifying matters of concerns and communities/groups that have been left out, as well as ground-truthing researchers’ assumptions based on prior research (our “Work Package 0”, which is considered an iterative component of the research programme). In addition, it outlines how the benefits arising from research will be shared with partners and collaborators, summarizing the good practices and concerns about benefit-sharing that have been identified in previous research collaborations. We are distilling lessons learnt and planning to review our Code of Practice in light of our continuous learning in this connection.


The One Ocean Hub is advancing research on the role of the inter-linkages between human rights and the marine environment to contribute to integrated and inclusive ocean governance, including at the stage of ocean research. We are exploring these themes from the specific perspectives of the human rights of indigenous peoples, small-scale fishing communities, women and children, as well as everyone’s human right to health, to food and to benefit from scientific advancements.

In addition, we are developing a systems view of the indivisibility of sustainability and blue economy aims. We are identifying how framing of the blue economy is strongly influenced by aspirations and norms for sustainability and justice set on the international stage, whereas the translation of these aims to actions or influence on the ground remains challenged. Developing blue economies appear to focus on tangible technical solutions that do not address systemic and complex tensions such as the careful balance between securitisation of the ocean for management purposes and issues of appropriation and justice, the relationship of the blue economy to climate change, and the ways in which representation of society is sought in the development and implementation of blue economies. Building on this, our research will expand on how developing blue economies can respond to internationally driven agenda to ensure that local contexts are firmly embedded and that strategies are flexible enough to adjust to the current and future challenges posed by climate change.