Academics, Global

Immersed in the blue economy

Immersed in the blue economy

How Duke is helping shape a sustainable future for the oceans

by Gregory Phillips
In 2008, Julia Bunting traveled to Indonesia on an internship to study a collapse in the numbers of fish and other marine species. The Duke graduate student learned the fishermen there were using dynamite on coral reefs, and had been for half a century.

“They would ignite plastic water bottles with fuel in them,” Bunting said. “We were diving and we would hear it in the water.”

As well as being dangerous, blowing up reefs yielded fantastic catches for one year, but nothing after that. But with only three boats patrolling Indonesia’s 18,000 islands, there simply weren’t the resources to enforce better fishing practices that would allow fish stocks to rebound between seasons. The fishermen were also up against economic reality. With limited electricity, they had no other way to make money.

This balance – between protecting ocean resources and still relying on them for livelihoods – is at the heart of what is known as the blue economy: sustainable economic development of the oceans that cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface and produce half its oxygen.

 A fisherman from Pulau Badi in Indonesia harvests his crop of Cottonii seaweed.
Credit: Julia Bunting
What's the blue economy?

Some call any economic ocean activity part of the blue economy. Others say the blue portion is only what’s environmentally sustainable. Both definitions can include:


 Mineral extraction

 Shipbuilding, repair and transportation

 Living resources

 Marine construction

Scholars across Duke are working to expand humanity’s understanding of the ocean, consistent with the university's mission to seek solutions to the world's most pressing problems. From the Marine Lab at the Nicholas School of the Environment to the Fuqua School of Business, and from Duke Law to the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke researchers are working on the complex regulations governing the use of the ocean, and studying the impact of industry on its teeming diversity of life.

“We can’t use the old model of industrialization, the one used on land for centuries,” said Dan Vermeer, founder and director of EDGE, Duke’s Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment at Fuqua. “But if we don’t define new principles, the old model will prevail – and it’s not sustainable in the long term.”
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John Virdin
John Virdin is one of the people helping countries define those new principles. Virdin spent 12 years at the World Bank helping governments draft rules for how the ocean should be used before coming to Duke. He now directs the Ocean and Coastal Policy program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

“Governments are asking how they can build a blue economy, what strategies they need to have in place,” Virdin said. “But they all mean different things when they say that.”
Some consider any economic ocean activity, from building ports to preserving coral reefs, to be part of the blue economy. Virdin said others are looking at what activity should be separated into brown – environmentally damaging – or blue.
“There’s benefit in showing all the economic activity that has the ocean in common,” Virdin said. “That gives you the ocean GDP for a given country. The blue economy is now more frequently defined as the sustainable portion of that, and those are the activities many governments want to boost.”

Blue economy planning is becoming more important to island countries and those with lots of coastline. While ocean industries from fishing and shipping to tourism have always been crucial in these areas, there hasn’t been integrated planning that acknowledges everyone is using the same ocean.

billion contributed to the U.S. GDP in 2016 from the blue economy

Virdin works to leverage Duke science to inform ocean policy. In 2018, he partnered with a group that included the World Bank to provide a blue economy assessment for Bangladesh, which had resolved maritime boundary disputes with India and Myanmar and wanted to take advantage of its oceanic resources.

“Our role is not to advocate, it’s to educate,” he said. “We provide basic macroeconomic ocean accounting for these governments, who don’t otherwise measure economic output in this way.”

“If you want to grow, you need a baseline, and to regulate as you go," he said. "An integrated ocean policy increases economic benefits and reduces environmental degradation.”

An accounting of a country’s blue economy includes human and natural capital, from fish stocks to coral reef ecosystems. But the potential extends beyond traditional ocean industries, such as fishing and tourism, to aquaculture, seawater cooling systems and renewable wave energy.

“We don’t yet know what all those industries might be,” Virdin said. “But the countries who move first can be in a position to further boost their economies by training workers in other places.”

Virdin said he first saw countries – mostly island states like Mauritius, where 99 percent of their sovereign territory is ocean – take an interest in the Blue Economy around 2012, and it’s since become a buzzword.

“I’m not convinced it’s not just a 10-year fad that we’re about halfway through,” he said. “But that’s not a bad thing if it gets governments focused on good policy. If we get ocean policy right, it can contribute to solving problems on land, like hunger, energy and climate change.”
Offshore oil and gas
Maritime and coastal tourism
Port activities
Maritime equipment
Water transport
Industrial fish processing
Shipbuilding and repair
Industrial capture fisheries


There are valuable metals in the potato-sized polymetallic nodules found on ocean floors. One well-known concentration of these nodes, southeast of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, is almost as large as the continental U.S.

Mining companies have their sights trained on extracting them, and protecting the ocean environment gets tricky outside territorial waters, which extend 200 miles from a country’s coast line.

“Out beyond that is the open ocean, the high seas,” said Steve Roady, a professor of the practice at Duke Law School. “We’re still figuring out who has what rights and how any deep seabed mining would work.”

Credit: Frontiers in Marine Science, redrawn from Hein, J., Mizell, K., Koschinsky, A., and Conrad, T. (2013). Deep-ocean mineral deposits as a source of critical metals for high- and green-technology applications: comparison with land-based resources. Ore Geol. Rev. 51, 1–14. doi: 10.1016/j.oregeorev.2012.12.001
The United Nations established the International Seabed Authority to regulate and oversee ocean mining for the good of humanity. Under the United Nations Law of the Sea, the ISA has an obligation to develop the resources of the high seas seabed while also protecting the ecological balance of the marine environment.
The ISA has written regulations for ocean mining exploration, which is already going on, and is now working on rules for the mining operations that will follow.
“Mining companies believe that the ores are more concentrated in the deep seabed than on land, and that there’s money to be made,” said Roady, who spent 30 years as a litigator working to maintain and improve air and water quality.
He fought mining companies who were blowing the tops off mountains in West Virginia. Deep sea mining, he said, “is similar in some ways to mountaintop mining on the ocean floor.” The development of exploitation regulations is moving slowly, as countries, mining contractors and NGOs grapple over how stringent the rules should be and how mining activity will be monitored.

“The clock is ticking,” Roady said. “I’m engaged in trying to make sure that if we exploit these resources, we do it in a responsible way that’s going to protect the environment. These regulations will determine who pays whom for what when something goes wrong.”
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Steve Roady


So little is known about life on the ocean floor that it’s impossible to predict all of the ecological effects of mining it, said Cindy Van Dover, a deep-sea biologist at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“We know the deep sea is not a desert, but we are still at an early stage of cataloging all of the species,” Van Dover said. “Life in the deep sea performs functions important to the health of ocean ecosystems, including providing habitat, detoxifying chemicals, and recycling organic material.”
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Cindy Van Dover
Van Dover was the first woman to pilot a submersible to the ocean floor, where even the briefest human presence can leave lasting effects. Tracks left by dredging 26 years ago remain as fresh as they would on the moon, Van Dover said.

The push from industry has accelerated the development of sea floor science, which until the 1960s was mostly done from ships on the surface. The field grew more sophisticated after the 1977 discovery of hydrothermal vents that support clusters of ocean floor life by spewing geothermically heated water.

Companies are interested in mining near these vents, the effects of which Van Dover said pose questions whose answers are beyond current scientific knowledge.

Hydrothermal vents are rare habitats, globally occupying an area less than the size of Manhattan by one estimate,” she said. “Vents are dynamic. They are biotically, chemically, and physically complex systems; no two are alike. This makes it especially challenging to understand what the impact of mining a given site might be, never mind mining multiple sites, as seems necessary for a viable commercial operation.

Read about how Cindy Lee Van Dover explored the ocean shelf of Massachusetts in a three-person research submarine.

“Local biodiversity loss seems certain, given that mining will remove the substratum on which the vent ecosystem exists,” Van Dover said. “Would there be sustained biodiversity loss? Measuring and monitoring that loss and recovery over decadal time scale is expensive and time-consuming, with few experts able to take on the task. I am not sure we have the means at this point to understand the full impacts of mining anywhere in the deep sea.”

And while scientists are slowly and steadily cataloging life on the seabed, Van Dover said it’s the “so what” questions that matter, such as how ocean life, the water column and the atmosphere we breathe interact with one another.

“The idea of mining the deep sea has indeed stimulated a tremendous amount of scientific research. Even so, I am not yet convinced that the scientific knowledge needed to underpin sound environmental management can accumulate fast enough to support the push to extract minerals from the seabed,” she said.
Polymetallic sulfides

Mineral deposits that form when hot fluid from volcanic activity comes into contact with cold seawater. The deep sea vents that emerge from these deposits are home to endemic ocean life that can’t be found anywhere else.

Crust fauna

Credit: NOAA Office of Exploration and Research

The biosphere surrounding earth’s oceanic crust containing unique microbes. 

Manganese nodule fauna

Credit: Craig McClain, "An Empire Lacking Food" , American Scientist

Small, vulnerable, bottom-feeding creatures that live among rock concretions containing valuable metals.


Another challenge to assessing environmental impacts in the ocean is that so much of it remains uncharted.

“Right now, spatial data in the oceans is often relatively sparse,” said Professor Pat Halpin. “It’s a big ocean and we are just beginning to accumulate enough information to manage it properly.” 

Halpin leads the  Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke, which is building reserves of ocean information in myriad ways across the globe. The lab combines GIS mapping, satellite remote sensing, ecological modeling and data science to inform ocean decision makers at the U.N. and elsewhere. 

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Pat Halpin
“The unifying theme of the lab,” Halpin said, “is to take data to decisions.” 

The lab helps the UN International Seabed Authority develop plans to sustainably manage deep sea mining in international waters. But the lab’s work extends far beyond the impacts of mining, and involves scales from regional to global.

“As a scientist, in order to know if an ocean site is important site, we need to have context,” Halpin said. “And that’s what we’re lacking: common data from the ocean surface or deep sea to be able to know whether it’s acceptable, for example, to fish or mine in a particular location.”

Regionally, the lab leads the Marine Life Data Analysis Team for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. This team supports planning for blue economy industries from fisheries and shipping to renewable energy. At the national level, the lab models whale and dolphin populations to help the U.S. Navy plan training exercises and operations along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic.

Globally, the lab provides U.N. agencies with information to support planning in the 64 percent of the oceans beyond any national jurisdiction. This includes maintaining the world data center on marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles, and the Migratory Connectivity of the Oceans program that tracks migratory species.

The Duke team also has helped the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity map more than 300 ecologically or biologically significant areas of the oceans.

“For ocean planning we need data in places where activities like fishing, shipping or mining occur, but also in the places where these activities are not occurring,” Halpin said. “We don’t yet have comparable information on the level we need.”

The Duke lab is a research partner in efforts to develop new ways to monitor shipping and fishing from space in near-real time, and using radar imagery to monitor infrastructure in the oceans, from oil platforms to wind turbines.

The goal is to make ocean activity publicly available and transparent.

“We’re all stakeholders,” Halpin said, “and better ocean data will help us sustainably manage the emerging blue economy.”
Click on a shaded area of the map for more information about the marine protected area.

Source: World database on Protected Areas, ESRI


The overfishing seen by MBA students in Indonesia is an issue the world over.

Approaches to the problem are varied, but all have unintended behavioral consequences. That's where Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, does much of his work.

Industry-wide quotas have been a popular way to curb overfishing, but they prompt fisheries to rush to catch as many fish as possible before the quota is met. This puts fishery workers at risk and depletes fish stocks faster each season.
“People race, they build bigger and faster boats to catch as much fish as possible before the quota is met,” Smith said. “It’s wasteful and it’s dangerous.”

Smith’s research has shown that individual quotas can help break that cycle. Commonly known as catch shares, the quotas function like cap-and-trade systems used to manage air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

“When we place a total cap on how much is biologically sustainable to catch and then share that quota among fisheries, they don’t have the same incentive to go out and race each other,” he said. “Fishing is among the most dangerous professions in the U.S.; slowing down and eliminating the need to race the clock to catch fish ahead of someone else is safer.”
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Martin Smith

Still, even well-managed ocean fishing areas won’t be able to produce enough seafood to meet growing demand, Smith said. The greater potential for the ocean to meet the rising demand for animal protein sustainably comes from farmed fish, those bred and raised specifically for harvesting and consumption. Farmed fish are part of what’s become known as aquaculture, which already accounts for about half of seafood protein on the market. Smith’s work also addresses some of the bottlenecks in that system.

“The single largest challenge to feeding more people from the oceans is disease,” he said. “Aquaculture is at a scale where big disease problems cause disruption in global markets, but it’s not really discussed in fishery circles.”

Multinational producers are well positioned to manage disease because of the knowledge they can carry to different countries, but they also face different regulatory environments, Smith said. A Norwegian salmon producer, for example, faces much tighter restrictions at home than it does in Chile. Smith’s research helps reveal the consequences of these regulatory gaps.

“What we’re seeing is large multinationals don’t always face the right incentives to properly manage their disease problems locally,” he said. “We need to grow more food from the oceans, which have so much potential. But how much of that we’re able to realize depends how well we manage it.”


By some measures, economic ocean activity exceeds $1.5 trillion a year – larger than all but the six largest national economies. How much its continued growth degrades the planet is something humanity can still influence.

“We’re on the verge of a lot of things we could do well or we could do catastrophically,” said Vermeer, director of EDGE. “We’ve never figured out how to do industrialization that didn’t depend on widespread exploitation.”