The ocean economy is worth between $3 trillion and $6 trillion and offers vast opportunities for developing countries to build resilience.
But marine resources are under threat from climate change, pollution and overfishing. About 11 million tonnes of plastic flow into the ocean each year. Globally, 34% of fish stocks have fallen to levels that are biologically unsustainable.
At stake are the livelihoods of about 3 billion people – living mostly in coastal developing countries – who rely on the ocean for food and income.
The Trade and Environment Review 2023 analyses the impacts of human activities and global crises on the ocean economy, which includes traditional sectors such as fishing and shipping, as well as emerging ones like offshore wind energy and marine biotechnology.
The report builds on the recommendations from the 4th UN Oceans Forum and the 2nd UN Ocean Conference held in 2022. It highlights the urgent need for a global “Blue Deal” to boost investment in protecting our ocean and sustainably using its resources.
Diversifying ocean-based exports
is key to building resilience
The export value of ocean-based goods – including fisheries, seafood, ships and port equipment – and services – such as shipping and coastal tourism – was estimated at $1.3 trillion in 2020.
The European Union is by far the world’s leading exporter ($459 billion), followed by China ($160 billion). Among developing countries, the next biggest exporters are India ($34 billion), Türkiye ($19 billion) and Thailand ($17 billion).
The COVID-19 crisis revealed the potential and resilience of some sectors and the extreme vulnerability of others. In general, exports of ocean-based goods showed remarkable resilience during the crisis, falling by just 3.2% in value in 2020.
This was minimal compared to the 59% crash suffered by ocean-related services, mainly driven by the collapse in coastal and marine tourism, which suffered the most from lockdowns.
Two ocean-based goods sectors – seafood processing and marine high-technology manufactures – even grew during the peak of the pandemic, as more people reached for ready-to-eat foods with a longer shelf-life and electronic monitoring devices.
As a result, the export of ocean-based goods ($681 billion) overtook those of services ($628 billion) in 2020.
The drop in revenue from services hit many coastal communities in developing countries, which often rely on sectors like tourism. Diversifying ocean exports and activities is key to building economic resilience to future crises.
UNCTAD calls for
1Developing countries to promote diversity their ocean economies by investing in the capacity to export ocean goods, and supporting manufacturing activities, such as processed seafood.
2Governments to align ocean policies across sectors, such as fisheries and transport, to boost export competitiveness.
3Businesses to build shorter and more resilient value chains and promote the use of sustainable shipping.
Emerging ocean sectors offer
vast opportunities for developing countries
The report highlights two emerging sustainable sectors – seaweed and plastics substitutes – that offer huge opportunities for developing countries to attract investment, create jobs and diversify their ocean economies.
Seaweed can grow without fresh water or fertilizer and captures huge amounts of CO2. The global market has more than tripled in two decades, growing from $4.5 billion in 2000 to $16.5 billion in 2020.
It can be farmed for food, cosmetics and biofuels, and can be used as an alternative to plastic.
The global exports of plastics reached about 369 million tonnes in 2021. Most of it will end up flooding our ocean.
But nature abounds in sustainable materials that could be used to make eco-friendly versions of the plastic products we consume daily. Besides algae, the list includes bamboo, banana plants and agricultural wastes.
The world traded about $388 billion in plastics substitutes in 2020. While this is already a sizeable market, it’s just one third the amount traded in plastics made from fossil fuels. So there is huge potential for growth.
Two thirds of global exports of plastic substitutes are in the form of raw materials that many developing countries have in abundance.
UNCTAD calls for
1Governments and businesses to boost funding for the research and development of emerging sustainable sectors in the ocean economy.
2Companies to invest in developing countries to bolster their technology and skills so they can capitalize on new ocean opportunities.
3Governments to ensure seaweed farming is done in a way that protects marine ecosystems and creates jobs for coastal communities.
4Countries to finalize negotiations on the UN treaty on ending plastic pollution and create trade incentives for nature-based substitutes.
Countries should urgently
reform fisheries subsidies
An estimated $35 billion of government subsidies go to fishing activities around the world. The impact of this money on fish stocks and ocean sustainability depends on how it is used.
While some funds, for example, support sustainable fisheries management and artisanal fishers, a significant share – about $20 billion a year – could contribute to overfishing by enhancing the capacity of the fishing industry. Such support includes providing fuel subsidies, paying operational costs or providing financial support to buy larger ships.
Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that fisheries support from 40 industrialized nations fell 20% between 2012 and 2014, from $12 billion per year to around $9.4 billion. This was good news, but the trend reversed, and by 2018 support had bounced back to the 2012 peak.
The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) adoption of the Agreement on Fisheries Subsidies on 17 June 2022 was a big step in tackling this issue. The agreement will enter into force when two thirds of WTO members have deposited their “instruments of acceptance”. As of 1 May 2023, only four had done so
UNCTAD calls for
1Members of the WTO to ratify the Fisheries Subsidies Agreement, and to scale up multilateral cooperation within the agreement.
2Countries to adopt and ratify the Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction agreement, or the “High Seas Treaty”.
Global ‘Blue Deal’ urgently needed
to protect and invest in ocean resources
The Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to life below water (SDG 14) is the least funded of all the goals.
From 2013 to 2018, only 1.6% of the total Official Development Assistance – some $2.9 billion per year – was directed to the ocean economy.
This is far below the amount required to address the ocean crisis. What’s required is a global "Blue Deal" to invest in safeguarding marine resources and building a resilient ocean economy that benefits all.
Estimates show an investment of $2.8 trillion today in four sustainable solutions – conservation and restoration of mangroves, decarbonization of international shipping, sustainable ocean-based food production and offshore wind energy – would yield benefits of $15.5 trillion by 2050.
The deal would also drive investment into new sustainable sectors – including seaweed farming and plastics substitutes – that could benefit many vulnerable islands and coastal countries.
The report reiterates the recommendations put forth by experts, industry representatives and government officials from around the globe who took part in the 4th UN Oceans Forum and the 2nd UN Ocean Conference, both held in 2022.
Without a global accord, SDG 14 and its promise of a resilient and beneficial ocean economy will be much harder to achieve.
UNCTAD calls for
1Implement the key priorities for ocean cooperation adopted at the 2nd UN Ocean Conference and new commitments made in other multilateral agreements that benefit the ocean.
2Urgently bridge the ocean funding gap, boosting investment in emerging sustainable sectors and promoting blended finance to enhance cooperation between public and private actors.
3Include the goal of promoting a sustainable ocean economy in crisis recovery strategies and climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
4Improve the collection, management and sharing of statistics, and contribute to UNCTAD’s database and classification of ocean sectors.