The blue economy, or the potential of our oceans to contribute to a green recovery, deserves a major slot at the November COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. The importance of our oceans and their role in feeding the planet is critical, particularly as we try to rebuild our Covid shattered finances. The marine economy is typically associated with traditional activities like fishing and transport, but an increasing number of innovative sectors are emerging, such as marine renewable energy. Scotland is a global leader in offshore wind energy but also in developing other emerging and promising technologies like tidal energy.

With predictions that the blue economy could outperform the growth of the post-pandemic global economy, both in terms of output and jobs, it requires important efforts to adopt an integrated maritime policy approach. The UK and Scottish governments will need to work closely together to engage all stakeholders and blue sectors into the discussion on protecting the environment, promoting the use of new technologies and innovation, creating adequate economic and legislative incentives and enhancing international cooperation. This means examining ways to encourage the development of skills and knowledge related to the specific needs of the blue economy sector. It will also require both governments to implement sympathetic regulatory and financial measures to boost investment in the sector.

Our oceans maintain half of the world's oxygen production and are a source of clean energy and highly nutritious food. Yet, this privilege comes with a responsibility to protect it. We must not forget that the green economy is interconnected with the blue; there can be no Scottish ‘Green Deal’ without a sustainable blue economy. The pandemic and Brexit have had a huge negative impact on the different blue sectors, particularly fisheries and tourism. Nevertheless, there is now an opportunity to build something new and between them, renewable energy and green infrastructure are hiding huge economic opportunities. We need to make rational use of the oceans so as to provide room for all the economic activities as well as the protection of marine life. This means not just spatial planning but also ensuring sustainable fishing and aquaculture and the control and prevention of plastic pollution. The deepening of our knowledge of the marine environment is critical to understand and predict future scenarios.

There are exciting new areas that require further exploration, such as bio-refineries that can take fishing waste and transform it into high-value biochemicals and biomaterials, replacing fossil fuels. Indeed, the circular economy, the economic system aimed at eliminating waste by the continual use of resources, has the potential to build new industries, creating nutrients, animal feed and cosmetics. Offshore renewable energy, alone, can create thousands of new jobs. However, we shouldn't ignore long-established industries; we must build a symbiosis between the time-honoured ways of working and the new ones. We must not allow offshore renewable infrastructure to drive fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds. Likewise, economic and environmental performance are very often interconnected. For instance, the fisheries sector has found that as it becomes more sustainable and environmentally responsible, it also becomes more profitable. Our oceans and coastal ecosystems are very complex and fragile. But if well managed, they can generate wealth, coastal tourism, gastronomy and further scientific opportunities in research and development.  

The Scottish government has committed to a Blue Economy Action Plan which embraces the whole range of marine sectors, including seafood, tourism, energy, transport and science. They say that under a new Future Fisheries Management Strategy they will promote plans to encourage greater landing of catch in Scottish ports. But the Scottish government need to be more ambitious. They should finance the conversion of Scotland’s fleet to zero-carbon-emission hydrogen fuel cell power units. That would make a major contribution to achieving the UK government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It would also be hugely impressive to the COP26 summit and would project Scotland as a world-leader in fishing fleet modernisation. The Japan Fisheries Research & Education Agency has already linked up with Toyota to develop fishing vessels powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which they hope to produce commercially by 2022.

There are many other innovative opportunities for the sustainable exploitation of our oceans. Sea salt is now a sought-after product that has found its way into Michelin Star restaurants and gourmet foodstuffs around the world. The cachet of sea salt from Scotland has already been successfully developed by businesses on the Isle of Skye and the Ayrshire Coast and there is clearly room for more. Similarly, seaweed is rapidly gaining popularity as carbon positive seaweed farms market high-quality, nutrient-rich, seasonings and seaweed flakes as a new Scottish ‘superfood’. Recent estimates project the global market for seaweed will rise to £6.5 billion by 2024.

Our reputation for producing some of the world’s best shellfish and fish is the envy of many seafaring nations and our flourishing aquaculture industry employs over 2,300 people directly, mostly in remote rural areas, with few other job opportunities. Thousands more are employed in support industries. We export around 100,000 tons of salmon, worth over £1 billion to the Scottish economy, every year.

With 11,646 miles of coastline, tourism plays a key role in the blue economy. Sailing, canoeing, kayaking, surfing, diving, snorkelling and swimming are all attractive to locals and visitors alike. Boat tours, recreational sea-fishing and whale and dolphin watching are all major money-spinners for Scotland’s tourist industry and are set to expand exponentially, as staycations grab the lions’ share of summer holidays in post-pandemic Britain.

If Scotland is to maximise the potential of economic growth, job creation and the sustainable utilisation of its ocean resources, then it must avoid the pitfalls and challenges that could undermine our fragile ocean ecosystem. Overfishing, habitat degradation, the threats of climate change and unregulated, ad-hoc development, are all familiar issues which have plagued our coastline and seas in the past. In Scotland, every drop of water we drink and every breath we take is connected to the sea. We owe it to future generations to avoid these pitfalls, overcome the challenges, and grow and protect our blue economy.