Ocean’s blue economy follows business model

One of the most effective strategies to persuade industries to incorporate environmental stewardship into their business models has been to monetize the value of properly functioning natural systems.

The parlance of supply chain management can be applied to the oceans. The oceans are the source of raw materials ranging from the fish that we eat to sub-seafloor hydrocarbons to the water that precipitates over land and makes agriculture possible. In the absence of hurricanes or other violent storms, they provide a stable platform that facilitates the transport of goods from one part of the world to another.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of several public and private entities around San Diego interested in advancing the region’s blue economy. Toward this end, it has been instructive for the institution to point out that variability, whether natural or caused by people, has the potential to disrupt marine supply chains.

In pure business terms, the oceans are a storage facility. They’re a very important one in that their proper function is necessary to support life on Earth. Should the thermostat of this storage facility go haywire, for instance, society runs the risk of making many marine products unfit or unavailable for consumption.

Commercially valuable fisheries could collapse, stores of seafloor methane hydrate deposits kept stable under intense pressure, and cold could be released, if not maintained, at the temperature nature intended them to be kept at. They could burble to the ocean surface, destabilizing portions of continental shelves that collapse in the void left by these large ice-like deposits. They would add a huge dose of methane to the atmosphere.

Methane creates great warming. The value of methane hydrates as an energy resource would go untapped before we ever understand how to harvest them.

There are countless other assets in the oceans that provide monetary value to society that we risk losing through mismanagement. Coral reefs are an effective tool for protecting coastlines from the buffeting of violent storms, but acidification and high water temperatures weaken them and create dangerous breaches.

Oysters, clams, and other bivalves filter and clean ocean water, but can be killed off if the water becomes choked with terrestrial fertilizer runoff. Coastal mangrove forests support fisheries, but only if they are not uprooted and replaced by beachfront resorts. They provide profit over the course of many generations, unlike those resorts, which may stop bearing monetary fruit at the end of their service lives.

And when the heater of the ocean is left in the “on” position inadvertently, then the climate stability that we enjoy every day becomes harder to count on, and once excessive heat is introduced to the oceans, it stays there for decades and centuries.

The oceans are just too big to reverse the course of warming quickly. We are left for a very long time with sea-level rise, melting polar ice, far more unstable and unpredictable weather.

And so on. It becomes clear after a while that Earth as a corporation has a financial interest in properly maintaining its inventory. How can we do that? Scripps Oceanography argues that the monitoring of our reserves is essential. Luckily, we have been innovating, creating low-cost ways to do so.

The international Argo network, based on floats invented largely by Scripps oceanographers, can describe what’s happening in all the world’s oceans at once. There are about 3,500 of them operating at any given time. Each costs the price of a Ford Explorer to build, operate and maintain over the course of its lifetime.

Scripps also operates the Coastal Data Information Project that provides surface current data that makes ship navigation in and out of California ports considerably more cost-effective. Scripps is part of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System. Among its products is the Southern California El Niño Index.

Because of that index, we are able to confirm what research instruments at the equator are finding: We’ll have an El Niño this year more than likely. Because of the index, we are able to see that the signal of warming ocean water at the equator tracks almost perfectly with the warming of water right off Dana Point. For such a big operation, the oceans are remarkably synchronized.

Scripps and its partners, the San Diego Maritime Alliance among them, continue to find ways in which the blue economy benefits San Diego and the world. But we see that the blue economy relies on a natural system that needs care and attention. There’s not a business term for the practice, but we profit when we love our oceans.

Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations now online magazine.

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