FEATURE ARTICLE - Lessons from history for today's blue growth agendas

Is blue growth a new concept? Our latest feature explores what the past can teach us for a successful future.
Published: 28 May 2020

​​​Emily S Klein (NOAA Fisheries​), Ruth H. Thurstan (University of Exeter​), and Bryony A. Caswell (University of Hull​) - co-chairs and members of ICES Working Group on the History of Fish and Fisheries​ ​and also lead authors on a recent paper "Something old, something new: Historical perspectives provide lessons for blue growth agendas". ​

​“Blue growth" is an emerging concept in national and international marine policy. Akin to the 'green economy' but for the oceans, current blue growth agendas aim to maintain and expand the benefits we derive from the seas in a balanced, integrated, and equitable way. Yet, there has been little work on evaluating whether strategies for blue growth will be successful, and the concept is often promoted as a novel way forward for ocean management.

​At a meeting of the Working Group on the History of Fish and Fisheries (WGHIST), we wondered, is blue growth indeed new? As an interdisciplinary collaboration of ecologists, biologists, historians, and fisheries scientists, we knew that many concepts, from spawning closures to ecosystem-based approaches, may have new names, but would be recognizable to fishing communities and managers in the past. How people previously attempted these strategies holds critical insight that can be useful not only for assessing our current ecosystems and providing deeper baselines, but also for management and policy in terms what worked, what did not, and why. We wondered if this would also be the case for blue growth.

Investigating the past for historical blue growth

To look for blue growth in our history, we first established a consistent definition of what we meant by blue growth, given that its definition can vary across locations and organizations. For this, we turned to the well-established blue growth agendas of the European Union (EU) and the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), determining four pillars to exemplify blue growth: (1) achieving growth of marine economies while minimizing impacts, (2) achieving and maintaining balance across ocean resource use, equitable access, efficient supply chains, and ecological well-being, (3) implementing smart solutions via human innovation, and (4) achieving integration across sectors, regions, and stakeholders.

Our second step was to determine if blue growth is new, or if it had occurred in the past. With the defined blue growth pillars in mind, our team of close to 30 researchers looked to their own research to determine case studies that met at least two or more of these criteria. This case study approach conclusively demonstrated to us that blue growth was not novel. We identified 20 historical fisheries or aquaculture examples from 13 countries, spanning the 40–800 years, which we contend embody blue growth concepts. From the Lagoon of Venice to nori aquaculture in Japan and the dugong fisheries of Australia, blue growth has been achieved, maintained - and lost - in the past.

What history can teach us for tomorrow's blue growth

Now that we knew blue growth existed in previous communities, the next steps were to determine if these past examples held insight that could be applied to blue growth today, and, if so, if that insight was already being addressed in contemporary blue growth agendas. To start, collaborators looked to their identified blue growth case studies, and reported important lessons from their success – or their failure. Yet, while the past may be important for local or regional blue growth, we were interested in what could be broadly applicable. Therefore, we needed lessons found in multiple regions, time periods, and social-ecological systems, so we then collectively looked for those lessons that cut across multiple case studies.

We identified fourteen such lessons that applied over disparate areas, time periods, and systems. These included the importance of spatial, temporal and economic scale, prioritizing long-term perspectives over short-term gains, and accounting for outside factors – such as wars, disease, and other markets and sectors. We also found that blue growth may not happen in a linear fashion, but can be unpredictable and difficult to maintain once achieved. Our cross-cutting lessons also taught us that open access to ocean resources is not the same as equitable access, and that communities with less economic and political power are likely to be pushed out of fishing and aquaculture, unless their needs are explicitly considered. Our work also identified important ways forward for blue growth success, including the importance of supporting systems, like social norms, equitable stakeholder engagement, and the social and cultural elements of stewardship. Other important elements for achieving blue growth involved flexible and ecosystem-minded management that was both top-down and bottom-up, as well as consistent and supported science and monitoring, enforcement, and community buy-in. Critically, the lessons also clarified that it may not be possible to achieve all the pillars of blue growth simultaneously – or over time – and that the benefits to human communities could be unequal across stakeholders. In consequence, trade-offs are very likely to be inevitable, and blue growth agendas need to consider how to prioritize aims and consider the needs of various community members up front.

Putting history's lessons in context

Our final stage of work was understanding whether these lessons were already being addressed today. We note that many of our lessons are not surprising; we further found them to be well reflected in the scientific literature. However, importantly, we found they were not well reflected in well-established contemporary blue growth agendas. We translated the lessons to 10 broadly-applicable Recommendations for current agendas, and assessed whether these were considered in those for the FAO and EU. Most were partially addressed by the EU agenda, and five by both the EU and FAO, yet only one was comprehensively considered by either – the Recommendation regarding stakeholder engagement. Yet we argued that even this may not go far enough. Our case studies highlighted the diverse values and needs of community members, and that this diversity could be decisive in success or failure of blue growth - a fact that is not discussed in either the EU or FAO blue growth documents.

Collectively, this work demonstrates the importance of our history for shedding light on the way forward to a sustainable ocean future. Here, historical examples of blue growth provide insights for the planning and implementation of contemporary blue growth agendas. Our findings are supported by the wider literature, showing that they are scientifically sound, yet the Recommendations we propose are poorly addressed in existing blue growth agendas. Given that blue growth is an emerging concept at the forefront of modern ocean management and policy, and because knowledge on the pathways to success and failure are lacking, such advice from history is urgently needed. ​

​Oceans Past Initiative

WGHIST is closely linked to the Oceans Past Initiative​ (OPI). While the Eighth Oceans Past Conference: Historical Perspectives on Marine Ecosystems, Fisheries, and Futures has been postponed until May 2021 due to the COVID 19 pandemic, OPI hosted a 5-day online, virtual conference during the week of 11-15 May 2020. Many of the talks and posters can be viewed online​.​

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​The Menhaden Fishery: Steamers crew surrounding menhaden with purse-seine. Etching by Capt B. F. Conklin from the "History and Methods of Fisheries" in The Fisheries and Fishing Industries of the United States (1884-1887) by G. B. Goode (Sect V vol I pp 337-339). Courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library. 

"Locations of the 20 historical case-studies (a) and the time period that each case-study spanned (b), together with key showing whether the case-study refers to single-species or mixed-species wild-capture fishery or aquaculture." (Figure 2 from Something old, something new: Historical perspectives provide lessons for blue growth agendas. ​Click to enlarge.
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FEATURE ARTICLE - Lessons from history for today's blue growth agendas

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