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Blue Economy in the Indo-Pacific: Navigating Between Growth and Conservation

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    2nd Aug, 2021
Blue Economy in the Indo-Pacific: Navigating Between Growth and Conservation


  • Once a niche term, Blue Economy (BE) has matured into a popular concept in marine governance discussions in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • As land resources reach their limits, the region’s governments are keen to harness the ocean’s wealth for economic projects.
  • The blue paradigm allows marine activities to be earth-friendly and sustainable, and thereby guaranteeing a more equitable future.
  • Recent developments, however, raise doubts about the viability of BE.
    • Global warming and the impacts of climate change are causing Asia’s and Africa’s best-laid ‘blue’ plans to run off-track.
    • There is a constant tension between growth and conservation impedes the blue enterprise in the Indo-Pacific region.

Understanding the concept of Blue Economy

  • The Blue Economy (BE) is a recent field of study that encompasses economic activities that depend on the sea.  
  • A new paradigm for coastal management and development of marine resources, the concept has become a popular theme in the recent years.
  • It is premised on the idea that a healthy ocean can support productive ecosystems, helping integrate economics with environmental sustainability, innovation, and dynamic business models.
  • BE’s central proposition is that the ecological well-being of marine and coastal ecosystems can be increased by shifting to a more sustainable economic model, spurring a range of developmental activity—from generating renewable energy and promoting ecotourism, to sustainable fisheries and transport.
  • Objective: To promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and employment opportunities within the Indian Ocean region’s maritime economic activities.
  • Components: The Blue Economy is determined to initiate appropriate programs for:
    • the sustainable harnessing of ocean resources
    • research and development
    • developing relevant sectors of oceanography
    • stock assessment of marine resources
    • introducing marine aquaculture, deep sea/long line fishing and biotechnology
    • human resource development

Working towards a ‘definition’

To be sure, there are different definitions of BE:

  • Institutions like the World Bank stress on the concept of “sustainable use of ocean resources”; others
  • The European Commission and the Commonwealth of Nations, emphasise “economic activity”.

There is, however, wide-ranging consensus on the need for BE approaches to both boost economic activity and preserve the oceans.

Why the need of Blue economy is on rise?

  • Oceans cover 72 percent of the surface of Earth and provide a substantial portion of the global population with food and livelihood.
  • Enhancing more than 80 percent of global trade, marine and coastal environments constitute a key resource for economic development.
  • Thus, there is a need to grow the Blue Economy in a sustainable, inclusive and people centred manner.

India and Blue economy

  • With an over 7,500-km-long coastline spread across nine coastal states, four union territories (UTs) - including two island UTs, 12 major, and 200 minor ports, India's blue economy supports 95% of the country's business through transportation and contributes an estimated 4% to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
  • Nine of its 29 states are coastal, and the nation’s geography includes 1,382 islands.
  • There are nearly 199 ports, including 12 major ports that handle approximately 1,400 million tons of cargo each year.
  • Moreover, India’s Exclusive Economic Zone of over 2 million square kilometers has a bounty of living and non-living resources with significant recoverable resources such as crude oil and natural gas.
  • India is also the third largest fish producing and second largest aquaculture fish producing country in the world.
  • The fisheries sector alone provides livelihood to about 16 million fisherfolk and fish farmers at the primary level and almost twice that number along the value chain. 

Tension between conservation and economics

It needs to be cleared that BE projects are facing problems in implementation. Despite an avowed commitment to blue growth, the region’s governments have struggled to navigate the tension between conservation and economics.

  • Growth prioritized over nature: It is more common for policymakers to seek to prioritise growth—which they consider to be the driver of national development.
  • Power grab for private ends: The emphasis on economic growth has enabled “power-grabs” or the appropriation of public resources for private ends.
  • Flawed policies: Environmentalists claim that private players have leveraged flawed BE policies to their advantage, aligning the needs of the poor with profit interests. Consequently, a form of ‘antipolitics’ has sought to exclude environmental and social issues from the purview of BE.
  • Advocated concept of delinking of growth: Meanwhile, there are experts and advocates who call for the delinking of growth from the concept of Blue Economy —in other words, to aim for ‘de-growth’.
  • Costly economic affair: It is argued that attempts to maintain current levels of economic growth are proving to be costly to the natural ecosystems.
  • Obsession of profits: Not only has rapid growth harmed the cause of conservation, environmentalists claim, an obsession with profits and prosperity is undermining the integrity of ocean systems.
  • Increased consumerism: The rush to equate consumerism with modernity has compromised attempts to bridge the chasm between development and conservation.


Following are the findings of a recent study of blue projects in Africa

  • Even as local governments sought to pursue marine development projects, coastal communities were largely excluded. 
  • Many governments were seized of the enormity of environmental costs.
  • The development of infrastructure at Kenya’s Lamu port, for instance, resulted in large-scale destruction of the habitat that the Kenyan government chose, seemingly, to overlook.
  • In Tanzania, Sudan, South Africa and Mozambique, too, governments have failed to incorporate ecological and socio-cultural concerns into BE plans.

While they initially engaged with local communities, many African governments had failed to follow through on their promises.

Looking at the positive side

  • In the Indian Ocean, small island developing states (SIDS) have shown promise in sustainably using ocean resources while generating economic growth, jobs and social and financial inclusion, and preserving and restoring ocean ecosystems.
    • The Seychelles, for example, has launched a pioneering sovereign blue bond and secured the first-ever climate adaptation debt restructuring.
    • Mauritius, too, has unveiled a roadmap to consolidate the tourism, seaports, and fishing sectors while building up aquaculture, marine biotechnology, and renewable energy.

Yet, for the vast majority of Indian Ocean and Pacific states, ‘Blue Economy’ remains an unfulfilled aspiration. 

What are the current challenges to BE?

  • Overfishing
  • Resource regulation: The key problem with BE is resources regulation – in particular, of ocean fisheries, wildlife, and seabed resources.
  • Fishing exploitation: In many parts of the African coast, South Asia and in the Western Pacific, governments have given fishing communities much leeway in exploiting fisheries, leading to an increase in licensed and unlicensed fishing.
  • Decline in fish stocks: With countries incentivizing artisanal fisher folk to switch to mechanized fishing, there has been a sharp decline in fish stocks.
  • Harmful fishing practice: This has also led to a rise in harmful fishing practices like bottom trawling and seine net fishing, that has damaged the marine ecology.  Destructive fishing methods such as poison fishing, blast fishing, and bottom trawling have caused extensive destruction of fish stock and reefs.
  • Flawed regulation: Indonesia offers lessons about the potential negative consequences of fishing subsidies.
    • Jakarta has for years given significant subsidies to its fishers.
    • Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, similarly flawed regulation and inadequate governance have resulted in a rapid decline of fish stocks.
  • Increased competition and conflict: Increased levels of competition and conflict among fishers has adversely impacted economic and food security, reducing environmental sustainability.

Criticism of India’s fisheries Bill

  • India has drafted a fisheries bill that has also been criticised for its emphasis on resource exploitation, deep-sea fishing, and privatisation of open-access water bodies.
  • Fishers’ unions have opposed the draft policy, calling it “export-oriented, production-driven, and based on capital investments.”
  • There is apprehension that the fisheries bill, if passed into law, could strip small-scale fishers of their rights of access to commons, and in the long run, damage the environment.
  • Rather than enable smaller fishers to increase their catch in sustainable ways, conservationists say, the law could end up hurting their interests. 
  • Not only does the draft mistakenly assume that capital investment and intensive technology (in areas such as mariculture) will be affordable for smaller fisherfolk, it is also excessively focused on resource extraction and profit, neglecting the reality that poor fishers operate in a socio-economic system where livelihoods are not dependent on the cycle of investment and extraction.

Marine Pollution

  • Shipping activities: Shipping activity along the coastline and in the busy Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) frequently contaminates the marine environment.
  • Release of synthetic trash: It is not only the oil and residue discharge from cargo and feeder ships that pollutes the surroundings; an enormous load of synthetic trash generated on land is disposed of at sea, causing massive damage to the environment.
  • Unaddressed marine health: The region’s countries have been unable to arrest the decline in marine health.
    • International organisations such as the Global Environment Facility, the Asian Development Bank, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, countries have yet to come around to effectively addressing the challenge of marine pollution and destruction of the habitat.
  • Pandemic: The environmental neglect has been exacerbated by COVID-19. The pandemic has caused the dumping of thousands of tonnes of medical waste (in particular, face masks) into the sea.
  • Micro plastic: The release of large amounts of micro-plastics into the marine environment threatens to adversely impact marine fauna and flora.
  • Ocean Governance

Ocean governance is also fundamental to maintaining the health of the marine habitat, and a vital prerequisite for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As coastal communities expand and dependence on marine resources grows, governments have sought to put a comprehensive system in place to govern marine resources. Yet, ocean governance has been inadequate, in vast swathes of the western and eastern Indian Ocean littorals.

  • Lack of regulation and finance: South Asia has struggled with regulation and ocean finance.
  • Lack of technological capacity: In larger parts of sub-Saharan and coastal Africa, countries lack the financial and technological capacity to harvest ocean assets. 
  • Absence of trained personnel: In part, the failure to protect the marine environment can be attributed to the absence of a cadre of trained personnel.
  • Limited ocean literacy: With limited ocean literacy, marine conservation has yet to receive the attention it truly deserves.
  • Corruption: Coastal African states, in particular, have been plagued by the corrupt tendencies of the political elite.

An illustrative example of the neglect of marine governance is the inability of the region’s states to deal with the issue of marine litter.

  • One of the least discussed subjects on the BE agenda, marine debris has in recent years emerged as a vexing challenge, compounded by climate change.
  • Having to cope with increasing uses from a variety of sources such as extractive industries, together with climate change, acidification, hypoxia, and chemical pollution, the oceans have had to absorb ever-increasing volumes of marine trash; by some estimates, for instance, 8 million tonnes of plastic every year end up in the oceans.
  • Yet, the focus of Asian governments continues to be on connectivity, port building, transport corridors and resource exploitation.
  • India’s own Sagarmala project, the centrepiece of New Delhi’s BE initiative, prioritises port building and infrastructure construction over sustainable development.
  • A recently announced “deep sea mission” seems intended at spurring deep-sea mining at the expense of marine conservation.
  •  Dilemma policymakers: Indeed, there are competing factors in the policy drafting process.
    • On the one hand, blue legislation must seek investments in new areas of the ocean economy, creating economic lines of business, jobs and companies.
    • On the other hand, BE endeavours must seek to conserve and nurture existing marine ecosystems, and reduce pollution, overfishing, and habitat loss.


  • The Maldives offers an instructive example of the dilemma policymakers must contend with. In 2016, as the Maldivian government began expanding economic opportunities through a much publicised ‘Blue Model’, it decided to invest in high-end beach tourism, reclaiming land to build hotels on some of the country’s many coral atolls.
  • This coincided with a period of severe coral bleaching caused by an El Niño phenomenon that spread warm water across oceans.
  • After criticism from local groups, the government of Maldives reversed course to prioritise conservation, even managing to salvage some damaged corals.

What measures are required?

  • Comprehensive ocean governance: A comprehensive ocean governance framework can balance sustainable economic activity and marine conservation, creating a positive impact on the lives of coastal communities.
  • Incorporation of MSP: One way to boost conservation is to incorporate spatial zoning and Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) in ecologically sensitive zones.
  • The Australian government’s effort at preserving the Great Barrier Reef is an interesting example.
    • The GBR is internationally recognized for its natural and heritage value, and the Australian Government established a Marine Park under a special Act in 1975 to provide a legal regime for the protection of the natural and heritage values of the Reef.
      • The law provided many safeguards, but not enough to protect against the impact of climate change.
  • In July 2021, when UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee considered classifying the Great Barrier Reef as an endangered natural site, committee members noted the Australian government’s inability to prevent mass coral bleaching events caused by rising ocean temperatures and global warming.
  • Following an appeal by Canberra, however, the committee suspended its decision until next year’s meeting.
  • Integrated strategy: The countries of the Indo-Pacific need to harmonize their BE approaches to develop an integrated strategy.
  • Collective investment in technology and innovation: Beyond agreeing upon a common definition, syncing procedures and operating principles, countries must collectively invest in technology and innovation that would enable blue sectors to develop technologies to boost productivity.
  • Application of ocean science to fisheries management: Indo-Pacific states must collaborate to create a more operational kind of ocean science to support sustainable economic goals.
  • Partnership for sustainable practice: There is the need for partnerships between littoral states that render fishing activity sustainable.

European Union countries have signed sustainable fisheries partnership agreements (SFPAs) with African and Western Indian Ocean countries.

  • Awareness: The first need is to create a knowledge economy to power the blue movement.

Initiatives to harness blue economy

Several countries have undertaken initiatives to harness their blue economy.

  • Australia, Brazil, United Kingdom, United States, Russia, and Norway have developed dedicated national ocean policies with measurable outcomes and budgetary provisions.
  • Canada and Australia have enacted legislation and established hierarchal institutions at federal and state levels to ensure progress and monitoring of their blue economy targets.
  • With a draft blue economy policy framework of its own, India is now all set to harness the vast potential of its ocean resources. 

Draft blue economy policy framework

The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) prepared the draft blue economy policy framework in line with the Government of India’s Vision of New India by 2030.

  • It highlighted blue economy as one of the ten core dimensions for national growth.
  • The draft policy framework emphasizes policies across several key sectors to achieve holistic growth of India’s economy.
  • The document recognizes the following seven thematic areas.
    • National accounting framework for the blue economy and ocean governance
    • Coastal marine spatial planning and tourism
    • Marine fisheries, aquaculture, and fish processing
    • Manufacturing, emerging industries, trade, technology, services, and skill development
    • Logistics, infrastructure and shipping, including trans-shipments
    • Coastal and deep-sea mining and offshore energy
    • Security, strategic dimensions, and international engagement
  • UN’s Ocean Decade (2021-2030): The United Nations has undertaken to support a new cooperative framework in the Ocean Decade (2021-2030) to ensure that global ocean science provides greater benefits for ocean ecosystems and wider society.
    • The initiative is aimed at rallying ocean stakeholders behind a common framework to ensure safeguarding healthy, productive and resilient oceans through science-informed policy responses.

Concluding thoughts

Blue Economy needs to be implemented in ways that preserve and nurture marine ecosystems. In order to do so, Indo-Pacific states must go beyond agreeing on common terms and the syncing of principles. The states should move to harmonize BE approaches to develop an integrated strategy to preserve marine ecosystem and also boost BE productivity.