A University of Pennsylvania Grad Takes Us Inside the Blue Economy

by Diana Drake

In October 2021, The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s top conservation organizations, announced a groundbreaking business partnership with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an independent island country in the Pacific Ocean. Together, they have launched Pacific Island Tuna, a joint-venture company that will supply sustainable canned tuna to Walmart stores across the U.S.

Fish sustainability is not just about making sure we don’t catch too many fish and risk eliminating a species. It’s also about the communities and customers that depend on fish for their livelihoods and survival. “Tunas are environmentally, economically and culturally important species for Pacific Island nations,” said the Nature Conservancy in a press release announcing Pacific Island Tuna. “Yet these countries, whose waters are the heart of global tuna fisheries, have historically been excluded from enjoying the full economic returns of their natural resources.”

The Ocean Is His Office

Mark Zimring, large scale fisheries director at The Nature Conservancy, underscores the impact of Pacific Island Tuna and all it stands for — openness and attention at all stages of the supply chain, from the time the fish is caught, to canning, and ultimately to retail sale and profit reinvestment.

“This joint venture is designed to shake up the $50-billion-a-year tuna industry; to signal clearly that the status quo is no longer acceptable and to demonstrate that there is an alternative,” says Zimring, who adds that the tuna market has not always been transparent and has been based on short-term product needs, rather than long-term sustainability. “This company will feature not just best-in-class commitments to environmental and social sustainability, but best-in-class verification of those — things like electronic monitoring [of tuna fishing] aboard vessels. And 100% of the net income over the long run in this business will flow directly into Pacific Island communities: 60% to governments and 40% to coastal communities to support sustainable development and climate resilience.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Mark Zimring.

Zimring, A University of Pennsylvania graduate in economics who joined a “Careers in Sustainability” panel during Penn Climate Week, spends his days immersed in what has come to be known as the blue economy.

The blue economy refers to the sustainable use of ocean resources to help the economy grow through thriving ocean-based commerce and jobs. The ocean is a vast business hub that supports all kinds of economic activities, from the transport of international goods, to fishing and fisheries and tourism. According to the World Bank, healthy oceans provide jobs and food, sustain economic growth, regulate the climate, and support the well-being of coastal communities, all while contributing $1.5 trillion annually to the overall economy.

“What I see in my work is that oceans cover 70% of the planet, and something on the order of three times the global footprint of agriculture is covered by fisheries [the enterprise of raising or harvesting fish] every year,” notes Zimring, who grew up near the shore north of Boston, Mass., among lobster fishers and clammers. “Looking globally, we’ve got a huge number of coastal states, of island states, of communities that are deeply dependent on and connected to the well-being of our oceans. For example, wild-caught seafood is the primary source of protein for 10% of the global population. In the Pacific Islands, well over 50% of national income is coming from fisheries. In these geographies, the resilience of people is deeply tied to the resilience of nature. When I think of the blue economy, not only do I think about opportunity as folks look to our oceans for sustainable development and beyond, but I see these incredibly important formal and informal economies that we’ve got to protect and steward.”

Fishing Vessels and Corporate Boardrooms

Despite “not knowing the difference between a stock and a bond” when he came to Penn as an undergrad, Zimring ultimately worked on Wall Street and for the U.S. Department of Energy before landing at The Nature Conservancy. His background in economics and finance, as well as his passion for the environment, serve him well in his current role, which involves “moving between fishing vessels in the Pacific Islands and corporate boardrooms in North America.” He often works with communities and governments to create marine-protected areas that prohibit fishing, a practice that eventually increases the production of the system and allows people to sustainably catch more fish.

Ideally, he says, businesses must look beyond the size of the day’s catch in order to positively impact ocean health and contribute to the strength of the blue economy. “The future of supply-chain resilience is in partnership with resource owners and stewards. That long-term orientation helps to align incentives around long-term resource stewardship [the responsible planning and management of resources] and resilience,” says Zimring. The launch of Pacific Island Tuna and the model that sustainability and profitability don’t have to be competing goals is a sign that “positive things are happening,” he adds. “Are they happening at a pace or scale that is up to the pace and scale of the challenge? Absolutely not. Big-market change is hard to predict. Too often we’re not ready for those moments when they hit. I do everything I can to collectively be ready for those moments with solutions that can solve these problems at a global scale.”

Conversation Starters

What is the blue economy?

Why is Pacific Island Tuna a unique business model and how does it contribute to sustainability?

What does Mark Zimring mean when he says, “When I think of the blue economy…I see these incredibly important formal and informal economies that we’ve got to protect and steward.”?

6 comments on “A University of Pennsylvania Grad Takes Us Inside the Blue Economy

  1. Zimring’s success in challenging the status quo in the
    pursuit of “finance for good” in the blue economy, was
    achieved by showing the symbiotic relationship between sustainability and profitability. Asking investors to be altruistic without the prospects of profit will have a short life span. Zimring has proven finance for good is achievable and in today’s broken world were our norms are: global warming, year round fires, rising ocean leaves, floods, landslides, pandemic, Black lives matters, Me to movement, gun violence, and high suicide rates; let us take a small step in correcting the damage done by generations past, and strive for promotion of finance for good.

  2. A massive blue world reigns over 71% of earth, and though we haven’t discovered it fully, we have had a huge impact on this Blue world. Thus, blue economy involves the way we sustainably extract and utilise the ocean resources while generating employment and improving livelihoods. In all this process keeping oceans and waterbodies well preserved and habitable for marine life.

    It is good to hear that Pacific Island Tuna is an leading example for coastal nations around the world. This model is better than previous ones, as it links the economical benefits to oceans. It is generating employment and serving as an source for government revenue. This way it helps to comply with idea of sustainability, as it preserves resources for future generation- by proper ocean management- while improving livelihood of current generation. If implemented successfully, immense benefits would be seen to stakeholders across the tuna supply chain, because everyone has got something to do.

  3. There is more than 80% of the ocean that has not yet been explored (or ever seen). And with the fact that 70% of the world is the ocean, this means that there is exactly 56% of the world that stays untouched. The blue economy, therefore, still has a great chance to thrive in the future once it is somewhat explored.
    But I think the blue economy is recently somewhat risky and unstable. It can get hit by a dozen of factors.
    These days, as the supply of fuels (energy) gets restrained, punctuality is a worrisome part of the supply chain. Especially with commodities like fish, this may make the fish unusable. Or else, in my hometown where fishery plays a major role in the local economy, a ‘crisis’ 6 years ago has damaged it significantly. At the time, Formosa did not treat their waste and emission so properly that causing nearly all the species in the Vietnamese sea to die out. This brought about a huge diminish in the local economy, an ever-high rate of poverty and unemployment, and a scar on the local culture. Fortunately, things have been recovering well so far.
    On the other hand, improvement in the blue economy brings back good impacts. This field leans toward SDGs, whereby they create job opportunities, life below the water surface, and so on.
    That’s to say, digging deeply into the blue economy is not just about the pursuit of revenue but also the effort toward a sustainable globe.

    • Of course, I agree with the fact that oceans are untapped and have high potential, but when exploring it we must take care that we do not commit the same mistake as we made while developing and exploring land. For instance, while exploring and developing land lots of forests have been sacrificed but that should not be done while moving in ocean, where any disturbance may destroy the vulnerable marine life. It would not be just ocean pollution which affected the waterbody but other activities like extracting oil and gas also affect the marine life (Fishery).

    • Bao P, I appreciate your brave decision to share your personal experience about the blue economy, providing a unique insight into why we should promote sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem. Furthermore, your detailed study on the negative consequences of the blue economy and SDGs on environmental concerns expanded on critical topics raised in the article, inspiring me to research more on ways to protect the blue economy.

      Nonetheless, I found some logical fallacies in your comment, and I want to address a few of those to initiate a healthy debate. At the beginning of the article, you claim that so much of the ocean remains unexplored, and since we do not know much about the sea, you believe it is unstable and even harmful to human civilization. Then, in the course of the piece, you discuss your personal experience on how overfishing threatened the local community’s food security and destroyed the ocean ecosystem in your home country. Nonetheless, as you approach the end of the comment, you assert that the marine environment is now recovering, and you said that the blue economy has a positive impact. I do not comprehend what you are attempting to suggest, as you first oppose the idea of a blue economy, arguing that the undiscovered ocean could be dangerous to humans and then promote the blue economy in the end. If you could clear out what message you are trying to deliver through your comment; it would be helpful for the readers to understand what your argument is.

      Moreover, I agree with your opening statement that the ocean is part of nature where many of its mysteries are undisclosed and where anything could happen. However, I believe concluding that the blue economy is unstable and rugged based just on your own experience might lead to a hasty generalization. According to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), although the ocean has not yet been completely excavated, it will provide significant economic advantages such as new food and energy resources to people, as declared in 2015. In addition, if the blue economy becomes unstable, this would not be caused by the ocean itself but by the human civilization doing a poor job in serving the ecosystem’s health. The human activities of burning fossil fuels and forests cutting down to fulfill their greed are deteriorating the sustainability of the sea environment and accelerating global warming. Though you have concluded to oppose the blue economy based on your experience, you should always be aware that your experiences might not be universal.

      Still, I feel sorry for what you and your home country went through, where the randomness of the ocean has harmed local communities. And I’m delighted you’re getting well.

      You abruptly referenced SDGs towards the conclusion of your response and said that the blue economy had a positive impact, which I could not fully comprehend. If you were going to claim it had a beneficial effect towards the end, why didn’t you begin your comment by describing the sea’s positive impact? The arguments presented at the front and back of the analysis do not correspond and contradict each other.

      I am not opposed to the positive impact you mention, though. Even the research paper published by SDGs stated that the blue economy is a theory that tries to overcome the current industrial civilization’s ecological limits by adapting the flawless circulation system of nature to industrial society. And it is a philosophy of innovation that aims to fundamentally close the discrepancy between expansion and preservation, which has not been resolved even in the green economy via the use of harmonious natural principles. With a bioenergy case study, this paper demonstrates that the blue economy’s technical innovation has enormous potential to develop environmentally sustainable systems by engaging closely with market, regulatory, and innovative social organizations. In addition, even when there is not enough policy or market innovation, the technological innovation may be filled by resident-led social innovation based on the cost and accessibility benefits of the community. Blue Economy is a hypothesis that necessitates fundamental paradigm shifts; hence, ongoing study and policy initiatives are required to overcome future challenges.

      In the age of Shintan, humans obtained fire from trees and later ushered in a new era of coal, forming barren mountains. However, oil resources have been introduced in a new era, while coal mining continues to inflict fatalities and environmental damage. In developing a competitive structure to ensure a steady oil supply, nations will cause ecological consequences such as the oil crisis. So the short-term solution I propose is to develop nuclear energy and natural gas to replace the current oil and coal energy industry. At the same time, considering the risks associated with using nuclear power and the environmental damage caused by mining natural gas, renewable energy sources could be the long-term solution as they are both limitless and environmentally beneficial. The techniques and technologies used to access renewable energies that use natural resources such as water, wind, and sunshine have evolved significantly through the fourth industrial revolution. I believe that renewable energy is the ultimate form of energy source that we should utilize to promote a blue economy and environmental sustainability.

    • The importance of the blue economy to the 29% of the earth not covered in the salty hug of the oceans is worth more than just sand dollars; just as the article and you said Bao, the greater part of the world is dependent on marine resources.
      Historically speaking, the open waters have sustained human civilization for several untold millennia. Living close to rivers and the oceans gave ancient peoples a reliable domestic and agricultural water supply, and they were also used for navigation—it was common for migrations to happen along the courses of such bodies of water. Even so, these humans could not do so without risk: flooding and, conversely, also droughts controlled their very lifestyles, making it very clear that the power structure between Mother Nature and mankind was heavily skewed towards nature.
      Today, after massive strides forward in innovation and growth, we can enjoy heated toilet seats and bring the water to us at our every beck and call. People who call the Great Basin Desert in Nevada home are able to DoorDash freshly wrapped sushi rolls from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes. Clearly, mankind held out on the tug-of-war on this one. Especially like you mentioned, Bao, with the water pollution disaster in which Formosa Plastics decimated the Vietnamese fish populations, we as humans now have enormous potential to ruin marine ecosystems (which have been around on Earth long before we have).
      As a kid, I used to idolize the Wild Kratts, a cartoon team of nature conservationists with animal-like superpowers, cheering for the rescues of many unique species of plants and animals, some even being endangered, from the wildish schemes of the show’s antagonists. Though many of Aviva’s inventions like the Time Trampoline and the Creature Power Suits remain nested purely in the realm of fiction, it’s meaningful to recognize that companies with the initiative of incorporating sustainable practices like Pacific Island Tuna are able to achieve the same effect in our real world: saving animal species from otherwise certain extinction.
      With this, I strongly agree with your point about how though economic benefits are undeniably a fundamental aspect of the blue economy, developing a solution to the problems of environmental degradation should be given top priority. Common sense dictates that if we don’t have the oceans to rely upon in the future, there will be no blue economy to speak of. To add to the statistics already present in this article, according to the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe, 3 billion people utilize the oceans as their primary source of income, and 80% of world trade is conducted via sea networks. We can see that the blue economy is already well-established and in a position to make correctional changes against both pollution and climate change.
      I say this even as my own family is reliant on the economic output of the oil and gas industry, which Det Norske Veritas (DNV) reports to contribute toward 80% of all ocean capital expenditure. A decade ago, my father once drove from Lansing, Michigan for an entire day and night to accept the software engineer job that he has now in Houston. With him are hundreds of thousands of other workers in the oil industry, each of them with their respective financial needs and ties to their jobs. Without a doubt, oil and gas will continue to be a central part of the economy for years to come, but we should embrace the gradual rise of offshore wind power (floating wind turbines); according to the International Energy Agency, these wind farms have the potential to generate more than 18 times the global electricity demand.
      This leads me to the one point where I disagree with you, Bao. The blue economy, in its fullest capacity, has not become any more risky nor unstable than it ever has been in the past. Its growth and progression can be steadily predicted, and the larger part of ocean investment is associated with the energy industry, rather than fishing or trade.
      Thus, in order to make a decisive change in the blue economy, we must start first with expanding clean energy. I presented a lot of numbers and facts in this comment, but truthfully it just “boils” down to the carbon footprint that we have right now through the oceans and the effort we could put in to alleviate this damage. Only by ensuring a healthier ocean environment will we be able to fully envision the true potential of our blue economy, paper and sand dollars alike.

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