The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.
The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.
How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR
Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.
The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.
To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.
‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’
To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.
Images of turtles trapped in plastic packaging or a fish nibbling on microfibres pull on the heartstrings, yet many scientists studying plastics in the oceans remain open-minded on the long-term effects.
While plastics shouldn’t be in our oceans, they say there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether microplastics – the very tiniest plastic particles, usually defined as being less than 1mm in diameter – are actually harmful.
It is estimated that over 1,000 turtles die each year from plastic waste. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program
On top of this, there is debate over how much plastic is actually in the sea and why so much of it remains hidden from view. Much of the research carried out to date is in its early stages – and has so far produced no definitive answers.
‘My concern is that we have to provide the authorities with good data, so they can make good decisions,’ says Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU). ‘We need strong data – not just emotions.’
Searching the sea
Plastic shopping bags can be degraded into microplastics that litter the oceans. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Gissel Nielsen leads a team of researchers who discovered that levels of microplastics in the Baltic Sea have remained constant over the past three decades, despite rising levels of plastics production and use.
The study – by researchers at DTU Aqua, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Geomar, Germany – analysed levels of microplastics in fish and water samples from the Baltic Sea, taken between 1987 and 2015.
‘The result is surprising,’ says Nielsen. ‘There is the same amount of plastic in both the water and the fish when you go back 30 years.’ He claims that previous studies of microplastics levels were ‘snapshots’, while this is the first time levels have been studied over a longer period.
The UK introduced a ban in January this year of the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads. Image: MPCA Photos
‘The study raises a number of questions, such as where the plastic has gone,’ he says. ‘Does it sink to the bottom, are there organisms that break it down, or is it carried away by currents? Some is in the sediment, some is in the fish, but we need to find out exactly how much plastic is there.’
In the study, more than 800 historical samples of fish were dissected and researchers found microplastics in around 20% of them. This laborious process involved diluting the stomach contents in order to remove ‘organic’ materials, then checking the filtered contents under a microscope to determine the size and concentration of plastics. It illustrates the difficulty of quantifying plastics in any sample, says Gissel Nielsen.
‘You must remove the biology to get a clear view of the plastics,’ he says.
Just as rivers supply the sea with water, they also act as a source of pollution. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, found that 10 large rivers are responsible for transporting 90% of plastic waste into the sea.
The team collected pre-published data on plastics in rivers and collated it with upstream sites of ‘mismanaged’ plastics waste – municipal waste that is uncollected.
‘The more mismanaged plastic waste there was, the more you found in the river,’ says Christian Schmidt, UFZ. ‘There was an empirical relationship between the two.’
The Yangtze river (pictured in Shanghai, China) is the main polluter of plastic in the ocean in the world. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr
Eight of these 10 rivers are in Asia, while the other two are in Africa. All of them flow through areas of high population.
‘Countries like India and China have seen huge economic growth – and now use large amounts of plastic food packaging and bottles – but have limited waste collection systems,’ he says. The data include both microplastic and ‘macro’ plastics – but microplastics data dominate ‘because scientists are more interested in that’, says Schmidt.
Plastic Ocean. Video: United Nations
While it is important to measure how much plastic is in the environment, Schmidt believes that the next step of his research will be more important – understanding the journey the plastics make from the river to the sea.
For all the uncertainty and debate over how much plastic is in the sea – and what harm it can do – one thing is clear. Future research is likely to focus more on the plastics that we can’t see, rather than the items we can.
It’s well known that the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increasing amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Now, German researchers say they have found the first evidence that this is happening in freshwaters, too, with potentially widespread effects on ecosystems.
‘Many current investigations describe tremendous effects of rising CO2 levels on marine ecosystems,’ says Linda Weiss at Ruhr-University Bochum: acidic oceans can have major impacts on marine food webs, nutrient cycles, overall productivity and biodiversity. ‘However, freshwater ecosystems have been largely overlooked,’ she adds.
Waters with high acidity have reduced biodiversity.
Weiss and colleagues looked at four freshwater reservoirs in Germany. Their analysis of data over 35 years – from 1981 to 2015 – confirmed a continuous increase in CO2, measured as the partial pressure or pCO2, and an associated decrease in pH of about 0.3, suggesting that freshwaters may acidify at a faster rate than the oceans.
In lab studies, the team also investigated the effects of higher acidity on two species of freshwater crustaceans called Daphnia, or water fleas. Daphnia found in lakes, ponds and reservoirs are an important primary food source for many larger animals.
Daphnia are an essential part of the freshwater food chain. Image: Faculty of Natural Sciences at Norwegian University of Science and Technology/Flickr
When Daphnia sense that predators are around, they respond by producing ‘helmets’ and spikes that make them harder to eat. Weiss found that high levels of CO2 reduce Daphnia’s ability to detect predators. ‘This reduces the expression of morphological defences, rendering them more vulnerable,’ she says.
The team suggest that CO2 alters chemical communication between species, which could have knock-on effects throughout the whole ecosystem. Many fish learn to use chemical cues from injured species to detect predatory threats and move away from danger, for example.
Ocean acidification - the evil twin of climate change | Triona McGrath | TEDxFulbrightDublin. Video: TEDx Talks
Cory Suski, an ecologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, says he is not aware of many other data sets showing trends in CO2 abundance in freshwater over an extended time. Also, he notes: ‘A lot of the work to date in this area has revolved around behavioural or physiological responses to elevated CO2, so a morphological change is novel.’
But he points out that it is difficult to predict how this change could impact aquatic ecosystems, or whether this may be a global phenomenon, simply because of the complex nature of CO2 in freshwater. The amount of CO2 in freshwater is driven by a number of factors including geology, land use, water chemistry, precipitation patterns and aquatic respiration.
In May 2018, the first full-scale mobile marine plastics collection system, developed by The Ocean Cleanup, will leave San Francisco, California, bound for the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ also known as the Pacific trash vortex. The plan, ultimately, is to use 60 of these $5m systems to clean up half of the debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch within five years, according to Boyan Slat, CEO of Netherlands foundation The Ocean Cleanup, speaking at the Cefic Chemical Congress held in Vienna, Austria, at the end of October 2017.
Each collection system comprises a 1km U-shaped barrier, which floats on the surface of the ocean and supports a 4m deep screen to channel floating plastic debris to a central collection point, for future recycling. A 100m prototype system has already been tested in the North Sea.
The system will leave from the San Francisco bay area. Image: Giuseppe Milo
The environmental cost of the Pacific’s plastic waste currently stands at roughly $13bn/year, while an estimated 600 wildlife species are threatened with extinction partly as a result of ingesting it. Plastic microbeads and particles only represent 5% of the plastics in the oceans, ‘but the remaining 95% will break down into small particles and chemicals that are already in the tuna we eat,’ Slat said. The larger plastics debris are all found in the top 4m of the oceans, the same depth as the system’s screens.
Plastic debris can end up in the food we eat. Image: Pixabay
Also speaking in Vienna, Emily Woglom, executive VP, Ocean Conservancy, said that 8m t/year of plastics goes into the oceans – ‘one city dump truck every minute’; between 2010 and 2025 the amount in the oceans will double. As much as ‘30% of fish on sale have plastics in them,’ she said. Most of the plastics now come from the developing economies, mainly in Asia, she added, noting that the Trash Free Seas Alliance, founded by the Ocean Conservancy and supported by the American Chemistry Council, Dow Chemical, P&G and the World Plastics Council as well as several big-name food and beverage companies have recently adopted the goal of launching a $150m fund for waste management in South East Asia.
How we roll. Video: The Ocean Cleanup
Meanwhile, Slat says that the mobile collection systems can also be used to trap plastic pollution closer to the source, for example in rivers and estuaries. Researchers at The Ocean Cleanup estimate that rivers transport between 115 and 241 m t/years of plastic waste into the oceans, with two-thirds coming from just 20 rivers, mostly in Asia.
The Pacific trash vortex forms as a result of circular ocean currents created by wind patterns and the forces created by the Earth’s rotation. Similar gyres are found in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and North and South Atlantic.