Our need for food, energy, transportation and recreation from the ocean is increasing. As a result, the ocean economy has grown rapidly over recent years. Existing ocean industries expand while new ones appear.

At present, ocean businesses are severely affected by the coronavirus. But a longer-term and more serious crisis facing the ocean is climate change, which amplifies the pressures on the marine environment.

Integrated ocean management can be a way of coping with both of these crises, while stimulating economic growth and creating jobs. This is the focus of our newly published blue paper for the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy.

Holistic approach

Integrated ocean management is a holistic way of managing ocean areas and resources, with the intent of balancing protection and production to ensure prosperity. Blue growth is one positive outcome. In the end, there is money to be made for those able to strike the right balance. Neither conservation nor the use of our ocean can happen in a vacuum without considering the wider implications. Short-term economic gains must not be prioritized over long-term prosperity, but conservation measures need to be used in a sophisticated way.

The crux of integrated ocean management is that it places the ecosystem at the centre of decision-making. It uses the most recent and accurate information available, which can be built on and tailored to the local context. Through our study we have seen several success stories, ranging from the Seychelles to China and the US, but they all have different approaches to integrated ocean management.

For example, in the past Norway regulated its major sectors—including petroleum, transportation, fisheries and aquaculture—on a purely individual basis. But reflecting the interconnectivity between the environment and human activities, the country recently decided to manage ecosystems holistically by overlaying integrated ocean management across the sectors. They brought together research institutes and agencies from various industry sectors to make ocean management plans that rely on regular and comprehensive scientific monitoring and comprehensive stakeholder involvement.

The outcome has been increased cooperation among business sectors and across levels and areas of government, clearer priorities between different ocean uses and environmental concerns, and better use of the economic potential of the country’s ocean areas. Importantly, the management plans are updated periodically and are therefore adaptable to changes in the marine environment, human needs and the continuous development of the various business sectors.

The benefits of integrated ocean management

Why should we care about integrated ocean management? Because it creates economic growth and employment, ensures environmental sustainability, and involves all stakeholders.

Around the world, millions of people are employed—directly or indirectly—by ocean industries. For coastal states in particular, the direct impact on GDP is massive. We can only maximise this potential if we succeed with ecosystem- and knowledge-based ocean management. Coronavirus is not just causing an economic crisis, but a human tragedy—certainly in terms of health, but also job losses and financial difficulties for individuals and families. Integrated ocean management will enable us to recover and rebuild.

If you care about nature and sustainability, you should cheer for integrated ocean management. The approach assists us in deciding what kind of activities should operate in our ocean areas, and what should be protected. And because stakeholder involvement is key, as seen in the Norwegian example, integrated ocean management holds accountable the businesses and other actors that are using our shared ocean space, thereby ensuring legitimate and democratic processes.

Taking action

Coronavirus has shown us how vulnerable we are, and how interconnected. The same vulnerability is apparent with climate change, a challenge vastly greater than anything we have faced before. The ocean and the climate are intimately connected. Perhaps the most important issue of our future is our ability to take action on climate change. Questions of adaptation and risk management loom large in this respect and are critical dimensions of all opportunities for action arising from integrated ocean management.

In times of crisis, “business as usual” becomes irrelevant. Our focus now should be on moving forward. From paper to practice, from grey to blue, from the current state to a brighter future. Facing any crisis, the ability to act and adapt is key to success. Integrated ocean management provides us with the tools to do so.