When we think of economies and economic value, we often have a “land-oriented” perspective, as most of us live, work and consume on land and their close maritime shores. However, the system of interconnected open ocean waters – together the world ocean – contains lots of valuable assets and facilities to most of our land-based economic activities (i.e. shipping lanes, fishing, material resources). Better knowledge and data will render new business and better governance models for this bleu economic giant.
- Japanese researchers have developed an autonomous maritime robot that can find samples of seafloor life and collect them on its own. It is small enough to fit on a boat, so that it can have real-time and wireless communication with its mother ship, the lack of which hindered these machines from operating autonomously before.
- Last year, Norwegian company SalMar launched the first of its six experimental open-ocean fish farms called Ocean Farm 1, which has a diameter of 100 meters and a length of 68 meters and has several echo sounders, HD-cameras and other sensors to farm 1.5 million baby salmon in the open ocean waters. Doing so solves the two biggest problems of near-shore aquaculture: pollution and space capacity. Last week, the company announced plans to build a second farm, twice the size of Ocean Farm 1.
- The World Bank has examined the minerals and metals that will likely see a large increase in demand as a result of the clear energy transition. Many of these are found on the ocean floor.
- Maersk and Deep Green have created a joint venture to produce and harvest polymetallic nodules (small rocks rich in a variety of valuable metals) at the crust of the ocean floor in a sustainable way, by using a fleet of Maersk’s remote-controlled vehicles and fleeting processing plants and Deep Green’s hydrometallurgical processing technology. The first studies are currently being conducted, and expectations are high that it will prove an economically profitable method.
- Tech companies, like Microsoft and Google, are dropping their datacenters in the deep sea or having them float in the open ocean. It reduces the cost of cooling down these energy-intensive server farms, but they might also circumvent regulation as they fall out of reach of national maritime law.
With the advent of digital technology came the “internet or information economy”, and with the first deployment of commercial rockets, satellites and spaceships, there is now the nascent “space economy” with new business models like space tourism, asteroid mining, and space-based service activities (i.e. satellite industry, renewable energy). Likewise, we can perceive all the value-adding activities at and below the world ocean’s waters as an economy in itself: the “ocean economy”.
We can perceive all the value-adding activities at and below the world ocean’s waters as an economy in itself: the “ocean economy.
Its “gross maritime product” has three categories, which are not in the private domain or jurisdiction of a specific economy: market flows and services (i.e. oceanic transport, oceanic tourism), direct resources, (i.e. fish stocks, material resources) and their adjacent benefits (i.e. carbon storage, renewable energy). In 2015, the WWF conservatively estimated the total value of ocean assets to be at least $24 trillion. And in terms of annual value-added activities, services and goods, the earth’s oceans render $2.5 trillion (making it the eighth largest economy). For different parts of the world, the world’s oceans contribute differently, but every economy and consumer worldwide is dependent on the world ocean anyway: from importing goods overseas, to eating fish to the materials in our smartphone. The biggest problem of the ocean economy is that what happens beneath the surface remains largely unknown, because its “hostile” environment to man and machine: no oxygen, little daylight, crushing pressures and no connection below and at the open oceans.
Three technological innovations can help to overcome this problem and create new business opportunities. First is the rapidly declining cost for sensory and wireless communication technology, allowing for remote-controlled and even autonomous devices that can roam the waters of the ocean economy. Like drones map land surfaces from the sky, smart submarines can map the currently unknown ocean floor and its underwater dynamics, a boon for ocean floor mining and oceanic transport. Second are increased computational power and internet infrastructure (i.e. by satellites) for maritime devices to share data, beneficial to oceanic activities that require real-time data, e.g. offshore sea farming and maritime construction. Furthermore, because of the decreasing cost of renewable energy components, the world ocean is becoming an economically viable source of renewable energy. Being an archipelago of almost 18,000 islands located in between the Indian and Pacific Ocean, Indonesia, for example, now generates a substantial part of its energy production from “open ocean energy”, like ocean waves, temperature differences and salinity.
- Global maritime history has always a struggle over sovereignty, and the world ocean might become an important geopolitical battle ground for superpowers with planetary ambitions. With ever-increasing improvements in maritime machine technology, the surveillance and warfare deployments in the open oceans might also increase.
- The world ocean is a complex system, hence operating it will bear large risks, as experimentations at the bottom of the ocean can, for example, create large waves (tsunamis) or alter, via maritime food chains, local fish populations elsewhere. The ocean economy therefore requires an understanding of the economic complexity paradigm, as we have written before.