The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
In the 1989 animated classic The Little Mermaid, titular mermaid Ariel wants nothing more than to leave her underwater home to pursue life on land. Of course, the film suggests that Ariel’s imminent departure is prompted by a search for love, but I propose a different reason (which, admittedly, may be “too much” for a children’s movie). Perhaps Ariel is struggling to cope with the many demands that humans place on the ocean, many of which have contributed to the degradation of the ecosystems that make up her home.
If my theory is correct, then Ariel may not have to leave her underwater abode after all…if the world embraces the blue economy. The term “blue economy” describes the subset of sustainable economic activities within the overall ocean-based economy. It acknowledges the vast economic opportunities provided by the ocean, including for women, girls, and others who are underrepresented in ocean industries, while also recognizing that healthy marine and coastal ecosystems are needed to realize those opportunities (which have been estimated to reach trillions of dollars in value globally).
Understanding this relationship requires a deep dive (pun intended) into the myriad sectors that comprise the blue economy. Traditional industries include commercial fishing, coastal and marine tourism, maritime transport, and desalination, among others. Newer industries, like coastal renewable energy (think wind, wave, and tidal variants), bioprospecting (finding biological compounds with useful applications), blue technologies (e.g., seafloor mapping or underwater robotics), marine spatial planning (like urban planning, but in the water), and aquaculture (the fastest growing food sector), are contributing, too. Ranging from leadership opportunities to incorporation of traditional knowledge, women and indigenous communities have a critical role to play across the board.
Many of these sectors require healthy ocean ecosystems, which all the sectors have the ability to help or harm. Take fishing and tourism, for example. They rely on robust quantities of Ariel’s aquatic friends, but both industries can inadvertently injure those populations. After all, there’s plenty of fish in the sea…unless overfishing depletes fish stocks. Sustainable management of healthy stocks and allowing overfished stocks to replenish can sustain aquatic communities and the sectors that depend on them.
Sustainably growing the blue economy requires participation by all ocean resource stakeholders, including women, youth, and indigenous communities, many of whom have cultural or livelihood-dependent relationships with local ecosystems. For instance, because ocean health drastically impacts the daily lives and occupations of women in the Seychelles, those very women are leading the charge for ocean use sustainability in their communities. Plus, when including post-harvest operations, it is estimated that one in two workers in the global fisheries and aquaculture sector is a woman.
Ensuring inclusive engagement in the blue economy and overcoming overfishing are just two pieces of the puzzle. Climate change also threatens the health of ocean ecosystems, as does the startling amount of pollution that finds its way into the ocean. Recall that Ariel’s main underwater hobby is collecting “gizmos, gadgets, and thingamabobs,” a more palatable way of saying “trash she found in the water.”
But addressing these challenges to the blue economy will pay dividends. The ocean helps regulate the climate system by absorbing carbon dioxide, and healthy ocean communities provide climate change resilience, like how barrier reefs, wetlands, and mangrove forests protect coastal communities during severe storms (which would also be helpful whenever Ariel’s nemesis Ursula turns her rage into typhoons). This benefits entire communities but especially women and girls, who are more likely to be endangered by climate-related disasters. The blue economy itself can help mitigate climate change, too, such as coastal renewable energy sources powering local communities, or aquaculture decreasing emissions associated with food production. Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the potential for coastal and island communities to sustainably grow their economies while addressing poverty and food insecurity.
These diverse benefits demand attention. That is why the State Department is working with international partners to promote the blue economy, ensure women’s and girls’ participation in said economy, facilitate sustainable use of marine resources, and understand both the impacts of climate change on the ocean and the climate solutions that the ocean provides. Across the U.S. Government, a strategy has also been created to catalyze the growth of the blue economy through public-private partnerships, emerging technology, and education in relevant science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
With that said, I propose this alternate ending to The Little Mermaid: Heartened by efforts to ensure sustainability of the ocean’s vast resources, Ariel never leaves her underwater home. Instead, she becomes an entrepreneur empowered by the blue economy, starting a scuba-diving company and leading tourists on excursions to meet her many ocean friends. And she never collected a single thingamabob again. But enough about Ariel…What can you do to participate in the blue economy?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), which is actively developing policy strategies and outreach opportunities to ensure the leadership of women and girls in developing solutions to climate change. Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.