Integration is the key to sustainable Blue Economies
14 07 2022

New call for ideas on multi-function marine projects in Asian Development Bank’s Developing Member Countries, notably Palau, the Marshall Islands and Malaysia.

By Nick Lambert, Director and Co-Founder of NLA International

The world’s seas and oceans – and the ecosystems, economies and livelihoods that depend on them – are under great stress. Climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise and the potential collapse of stressed marine ecosystems all present significant issues.

At first look, this presents a somewhat bleak picture for islands and coastal states whose very existence is threatened. But they are most definitely not lying down, instead offering vibrant global leadership, especially in articulating how their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) can provide a platform for a more positive, climate-resilient future.

Much of this front-foot approach was on display last month at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon. As the conference marketing materials pointed out, the Portuguese EEZ is 18 times the size of its land area. At NLAI, this is one of our first the calculations as we explore the Blue Economy of any nation with results that are most striking when considering what are often called Small Island Developing States. The land:sea ratio is often such that many of them are actually 99% sea within their Exclusive Economic Zone; hence we and many other commentators much prefer to call them Large Ocean States. Indeed, that was the banner under which a number of Pacific island states gathered at the Lisbon conference to present a united voice on ocean matters, pushing for greater international commitments and coordinated action.

For me, the word ‘coordinated’ is absolutely critical. For too long, ocean management has suffered from a lack of coordinated planning and management, with competing or non-aligned interests or sectors all suffering from a lack of joined-up thinking and planning. That’s also why it was great to see a number of nations come together in a conference side event to call for integrated ocean management across the Pacific, in order to “scale up innovative action for a healthy ocean, people and islands informed by science and traditional knowledge.”

Regenerating marine environments

At the strategic level, such a call for integration is best represented by the continued emergence of the Blue Economy where sensitive and holistic stewardship of – and targeted investment in – ocean resources enables governments to deliver regenerative marine environments that can better enable social and economic benefits.

The concept is certainly taking off, as reflected in increased and increasingly confident investment in specific marine sectors; in a broad range of promising technological innovation; and, in a growing number of cases, of the raised profile of the Blue Economy within national strategies and international relations.

The increasing interest and confidence in the Blue Economy is emerging for a number of reasons. First, there is growing understanding of the breadth of positive outcomes a well-managed seaspace can support – not just targets related to jobs, economic growth and environmental protection, but broader agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals and, of course, Nationally Determined Contributions for climate change action.

Such confidence is also encouraging exciting innovation in a number of sectors, including marine aquaculture; cultivated reefs; nature-based defences; and marine eco-tourism. Each of these developing sectors offers new opportunities for island and coastal states. As well as innovation within individual sectors, we are also witnessing investment in blue innovation clusters, and governments are adopting a range of interesting initiatives to create enabling environments for blue innovation.

However, in some cases, the scale of ambition within each of these sectors may not be properly addressing the size of the opportunity, particularly as it relates to small islands / large ocean states. We believe there are three potentially game-changing solutions for such nations.

Game-changing marine renewable energy

The first Blue Economy game-changer is the harnessing of marine renewable energy. The opportunity here is almost limitless, especially for large ocean states. Wave energy could power the entire world on its own, but the pace of change and adoption are still lagging behind expectation. A review of marine renewable opportunities reveals many ways forward, especially as technologies mature and more research is undertaken on potential sites for implementation. Governments are also grasping the nettle on policy commitments, creating enabling environments for investment and operational implementation.


However, while the environmental benefits of marine renewable energy are undeniable, and larger economies are successfully investing in offshore wind in particular, the potential has not, as yet, been tangible enough within smaller coastal and islands states to drive the kind of investment required to scale to reach true potential. Large ocean states, for example, probably have the most to offer (in terms of marine estate to be made available for renewable energy projects) and the most to gain (in creating new growth opportunities to counter the shock of COVID-19; to create revenues to invest on more regenerative activities; and to reduce climate change impacts that threaten their very existence in the decades to come).

This is where the promise of marine green hydrogen  offers a whole new blue horizon for large ocean states to utilise their marine estates not only to meet local energy demands but also to convert energy to electricity, and then to export that to an entirely new market. Both policy and commercial drivers are demanding alternative marine fuels, for example, which creates new possibilities in this realm.

This, then, is the second game changer. Investment will flow into regenerative marine activities because there is a promising market model that simply didn’t exist before.

So, with new investment pouring into the Blue Economy, aligned to exportable products drawn from marine renewable energy, there is a third potential game changer within the Blue Economy. That is to reach towards a much broader set of multi-functional marine projects that make the most effective use of the seaspace, with the greatest positive effect and just transition for local communities and the lightest, regenerative environmental impact.

Introducing the MARES project

That’s the approach under consideration in a new project NLAI is delighted to be involved in, led by the Asian Development Bank, which is investigating new Blue Economy opportunities. MARES (Marine Aquaculture, Renewable Energy, Reefs and Ecotourism for Ecosystem Services) is an initiative exploring how coastal and island states can use a multi-function approach to more effectively protect and draw benefit from their marine estates.


More energy and thinking are required now not just to see how marine activities can be planned to live comfortably side by side, but how they can properly integrate with each other; how they can actively support each other; and how they can become more than the sum of their parts.

In the first few months of the project, the assembled team of marine and maritime experts has developed a new set of processes and principles to help select and site multi-function marine activities, in the first instance in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau. And we are now ready to hear from any company with ideas for projects that can help those nations to harness marine renewable energy to create ‘power to X’ to boost local zero emission economies, marine aquaculture, ecotourism, reefs and other natural defences plus new economic activities such as alternative fuels and proteins.

Call-to-action – tell us about your projects!

If you have a practical, workable idea for a potential multi-function project, please check out the video above and then email with an overview of your proposal. MARES project experts will work together to assess the feasibility of ideas and ensure a balanced portfolio across a range of highlighted functions. Shortlisted proposals will then be supported to pitch their ideas to a High-Level Investor Forum somewhere in Asia in February 2023. We can’t promise funding, but your project will benefit from being assessed by a cross-disciplinary team of experts, feedback from investors at the High-Level Forum, and further publicity within the programme.

If you would like to find out more about the MARES initiative, you can enjoy a range of interesting presentations at the project’s Data Room.

Thank you and we very much look forward to hearing from you.

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