Opportunities in the Blue Economy

Following the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon last week, Vala’s Investment Director Lian Michelson shares her thoughts on the Blue Economy, and the myriad ingenious ways the ocean supports life on Earth. 

The ocean covers the majority of our planet’s surface, holding 97% of all water and 80% of all life forms. Arguably, it’s our greatest asset. We see the ocean’s value everywhere – in the food we eat, the holidays we take, the transportation of the goods we use, the air that we breathe, and the capture of carbon waste we create. The ocean is also central to the climate crisis – it absorbs one-third of the human population’s climate emissions.

But its true potential is far greater – for example, the ocean could provide six times more food than it does today, and two-thirds of the animal protein required to feed the global population by 2050 . The value of the ‘blue’ economy was estimated by the OECD to be US$1.5tn in 2010 and to grow to $3tn by 2030, with some ocean industries set to grow faster than the global economy. However, the ocean is heating faster than scientists had predicted, according to a 2019 study published in Science magazine – its value is tied to ecosystems in steep decline, ravaged by poor management, exploitation and pollution. Damage is already widespread, severe, and in some cases permanent. So protecting the ocean isn’t just a broad moral obligation – the ocean will play an increasingly important role in many important factors that influence our very existence, in some really fascinating ways. 

Blue economy sectors that I’m excited about

 – Digital ocean

Digital technologies hold great promise for ocean sustainability, however in many areas their uptake has been slow – that is, until now. There are strong signs that the page of digital innovation is set to accelerate in the ocean economy:  

  • The global marine digital products and services market was worth $159bn in 2021 – 18% ahead of pre-pandemic forecasts. 
  • The global maritime digital technology industry is forecast to be worth $345bn by 2030, up from a previous forecast of $279bn. 
  • The adoption of digital technology in the maritime sector will be three years ahead of previous estimates by the end of 2022, mostly because the pandemic drove an extra $675bn of retail trade online –  1 in 20 ports worldwide sped up their investment timeline in digital technology. 
  • The UK digital maritime industry will turn over $6.3bn this year, a 23% increase on pre-pandemic forecasts. 
  • Deal flow of investments in digital maritime technologies have increased by 85% in 2021. 

– Food security

More than 3bn humans depend on marine sustenance for their livelihoods. However 90% of marine fish stocks are now exploited or depleted, and more than 50% of the world’s fisheries are collapsing. Ocean aquaculture fills this critical gap in supply and demand. It already provides the majority (52%) of the world’s fish for human consumption. 

The High-level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy projects the oceans have the potential to sustainably produce nearly 6 times more food, depending on investment and innovations in marine aquaculture, the reduction of fishmeal as an ingredient in animal feeds and the optimisation of wild fisheries. These strong trends translate into an enormous need for capital. 

  • Sustainable aquaculture is expected to grow 6-8% p.a reaching $200bn (from $80bn) by 2030. 
  • Aquaculture feed is growing at around 4-6% p.a, estimated to reach $170bn by 2025. 
  • Applying sound management reforms to global fisheries could generate annual increases exceeding 16 million metric tons in catch, $53 bn in profit, and 619 metric tons in biomass, relative to business as usual. 

– Marine ecosystems

Marine habitats and wildlife are already suffering the consequences of rising sea temperatures, plastic pollution and acidification, as are the coastal communities that depend on them. 35% of the world’s mangroves, 60% of coral reefs, and 38% of sea forests have already been destroyed. 

Plastics and seaweed

8m tons of plastic enters the ocean annually, and only 15% of the 400 million tons of plastic produced annually is recycled. 

  • European demand for recycled plastic is growing 9% annually, prompted by regulatory pressure and changing customer preferences. 
  • Sea forests have the potential to capture 2-5 times more carbon than those on land, and are now the focus for blue carbon capture. 
  • The seaweed cultivation market size was valued at $17bn in 2020 and is projected to grow by 12.6% CAGR by 2025. 90% of production occurs in fragmented, semi-industrial models in China and South East Asia. 

Energy/Climate

The ocean is one of the planet’s most abundant sources of renewable energy. Its power can be captured and transformed into clean energy – enough, potentially, to power the world twice over. Because this energy is carbon free and infinite, it’s a critical weapon in the fight against climate change and ocean acidification. 

  • The European Commission estimates that ocean energy can contribute up to 5.8bn Euros in Gross Value added between now and 2030. 
  • The EU Offshore Renewable Energy Strategy aims to install 60GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 and 300 GW by 2050, a 25 x increase from today. The EU also plans to develop at least 1GW of other emerging technologies by 2030, and 40GW by 2050. 
  • The global wave and tidal energy market is projected to grow from $590m in 2021 to $4.4bn by 2028. 
  • Wave power has advantages due to its predictability and availability, and has the highest production capacity. The UK is the leading European country in wave power. 
  • Ocean energy sites can have a ‘marine reserve effect’, sheltering species thus enabling reproduction and enriching biodiversity. 

A chronic funding shortfall

As we’ve seen, the Blue Economy is demonstrating massive steps forward in innovation, but it’s still arguably a comparative blind spot for both investment and philanthropy – of all the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 14 (Life Below Water) is the least-funded, while ocean philanthropy accounts for less than 1% of all charitable giving. Halting ocean ecosystem decline and unlocking its true economic, social and ecological value requires at least an estimated additional $150bn per year of dedicated funding. 

Even at scale, philanthropic funding cannot provide the long-term solution; sustainable solutions require the development of thriving economic ecosystems capable of generating a consistent flow of value and capital – I’m really excited about the opportunities I’m seeing in the Blue Economy, and delighted to see that events such as the UN Ocean Conference are providing more of the momentum needed for this fascinating sector to realise its true potential. 

If you found this blog interesting, you might want to check out some of the portfolio companies we work with in the Ocean space – whether that’s beneath the water, or on it: FlexSea, Honuworx, Arksen, RAD propulsion and Ring.

Lian Michelson, Investment Director.

Prev/next

Recent posts

see all

Jul 25 • 4-MINS

Female founder? Here’s what a successful pitch looks like

Jun 29 • 35-MINS

Vala’s Sustainable Growth EIS: Webinar

Jun 23 • 4-MINS

2022’s most important sustainable investment themes.