by Lombard Odier

How rewilding the oceans can lead to a prosperous blue economy

Off the Isle of Arran, part of Scotland’s rugged west coast, a project to rewild a stretch of sea that was severely depleted through trawling and dredging for scallops is bearing fruit.

Thanks to a “no-take zone”, in which no marine life can be removed by any method, beds of maerl – a purple-pink seaweed – are regenerating, helping to lay the foundation for a wider recovery of the local marine ecosystem.

The Scottish experiment with rewilding the ocean is helping to restore aquatic habitats that have long suffered as a result of unsustainable human exploitation. But Arran’s economy has also benefited from the rewilding project thanks to a boost in eco-tourism and scuba diving – and even to local fishing as marine life recovers.

“It is the very withdrawal of our impact that leads to increased biodiversity and abundance, and the development of a healthier sea bed,” Claudia Beamish, a Scottish politician, told a meeting of the Scottish Parliament in December. “Those benefit the fishing communities working legally around the no-take zone…in our seas, economic recovery and environmental recovery must go hand in hand.” 

Welcome to the Blue Economy.

According to the National Ocean Service, part of the US Department of Commerce, oceans are the source of at least 50 per cent of all oxygen produced on Earth. Prochlorococcus, tiny marine bacteria, produces as much as 20 per cent of the oxygen in our entire biosphere – a greater volume than all the tropical rainforests and land combined.

They are also indispensable as a source of food and economic activity: some 3.2bn people rely on fish for almost one-fifth of their protein, and more than 3bn people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods.

Yet industrial fishing, offshore oil exploration and using the ocean as the world’s dumping ground for plastics and harmful chemicals have placed this fragile ecosystem on a knife’s edge. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the fraction of fish stocks that remain biologically sustainable has fallen from 90 per cent in the 1970s to less than 66 per cent in recent years – and the continuing fall is putting future food supply at risk.

All of this is the product of a Wild, Idle, Lopsided and Dirty (WILD™) economy, which destroys value by undermining sustainability through pollution and the rapid depletion of natural resources.

Rewilding the oceans to foster a blue economy of sustainable marine habits as the foundation for economic growth is an essential part of the transition towards a Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean (CLIC™) economy, which centres on sustainability, social justice and responsible stewardship of the environment.

Shellfish could be one of the answers. Research by Stanford University suggests that clams and mussels can clean streams, rivers and lakes of potentially harmful chemicals from pharmaceuticals, personal-care products and herbicides that treatment plants cannot fully remove – and that can eventually find their way to the oceans.

The University of Florida has carried out research showing the benefits of shellfish for coastal waters thanks to clams’ ability to remove nitrogen, filter water, which increases sunlight penetration and helps seagrasses to grow, and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in their tissue and shells.

Meanwhile, no-take zones, such as the one established in Arran in 2008, are catching on.

Thanks to a no-fishing-zone (NFZ) pilot project set up in Turkey’s Gökova Bay in the Aegean Sea, local fish stocks have increased 10-fold, spilling over into the surrounding fishable waters. As a result, the income of local community members of the bay increased 400 per cent within just five years of establishing the protected zone.

Following that success, the Turkish government declared six NFZs in 2010 to protect breeding and nursery grounds in a move that represented the nation’s first fully fledged network of community-managed marine reserves.

NFZs are a valuable resource in the blue economy, but they have not helped to restore kelp forests off the coast of California, which have been devastated by the proliferation of kelp-feeding purple sea urchins.

Overfishing and pollution have killed off these urchins’ natural predators, allowing them to multiply. Today, the result is so-called urchin barrens – marine deserts covered in urchins that, starved of the kelp they depend on, go into a state of virtual hibernation.

Deprived of food, the urchins lose nutritional value and so are unappealing to any predators that remain. Yet they can survive for decades, creating a barren, underwater wilderness that do not respond to NFZs.

Urchinomics, a Norwegian company, aims to solve the problem by paying out-of-work local fishers to collect the urchins. It then “ranches” them on land, in effect fattening them up in tanks in order to sell them to high-end sushi restaurants.

For the cleared areas, all of this means a chance to reboot and restore ecological balance, which can be a quick process: in areas cleared of urchins, bull kelp grows back within three months – creating an environment for fish, seals, otters and other marine life to thrive.

Bay Foundation, a California non-profit organisation that works with Urchinomics, has so far restored 55 acres of kelp forest, providing a breeding ground for more than 700 species of marine life.

That is a drop in the ocean compared with thousands of acres of kelp forests that have been destroyed over many decades. But it is a clear sign of how rewilding the oceans can lead to a prosperous blue economy.

“Many of our global challenges we face today are caused by poor incentives,” says Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, Urchinomics’ Founder and CEO in the company’s mission statement. “When incentives are properly aligned, and the spirit of human innovation is unleashed, ecological restoration, social development and company profits can be achieved hand-in-hand”.

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FT Rethink series focuses on the people, technology, strategies and systems moving us from an economy that is wasteful, idle, lopsided and dirty towards one that is circular, lean, inclusive and clean. The channel alternates between independent reporting from FT journalists and business perspectives from Lombard Odier