Blue economy, red ink, white flag? Restarting America's maritime and coastal industries

Blue economy, red ink, white flag? Restarting America's maritime and coastal industries
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Headlines about post-pandemic America say “recover.”  The White House says “reopen.”  Neither word could mean returning to the way we were. 

“America” is also an ambivalent word. To recover-reopen-reinvent America, we have an opportunity for all America, which includes the half that is submerged. We own and steward about three billion acres of ocean and ocean bottom in the Pacific, Arctic, Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

COVID-19 has wrecked most maritime and coastal industries, including cruising —most famously — and shipping, offshore energy extraction and fishing have also dropped like lead sinkers. Meanwhile, the Navy, the Coast Guard and commercial vessels struggle with outbreaks and social distance.

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Because 90 percent of internationally transported goods spend time on ships, a supply chain is really a sea bridge of tankers, bulk carriers, freighters and ferries extending, for example, from the ports of Los Angeles to Shanghai, or Georgia to Rotterdam. The locked down world has multiplied use of remote equipment and will inevitably accelerate autonomy in shipping, just as in medicine and other precious sectors.

COVID-19 is pulsing through the ocean in many ways. Tons of discarded plastic gloves and masks have already washed into oceans and seas and onto their shores, detergents too. On a happier note, reductions in additions of human noise have, anecdotally, allowed marine mammals to enjoy habitats that had become perilously loud for them.

Pre-coronavirus, the White House promulgated a memorandum assigning priority to exploring, mapping and characterizing the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the areas that extend 200 miles seaward from our shores. We believe the disastrously blue U.S. economy caused by COVID-19 creates the opportunity for an innovative bright ocean economy of coastal and maritime industries.

We have a responsibility (with an enlightened history) to sustain the resources and manage activity within the U.S. EEZ and protect that valuable real estate from unwelcome competitors and risks. Genomic monitoring of coastal waters might offer timely alerts of the growing presence of viruses like COVID-19 soon after they are released into sewage. Floating the energy-hungry data centers that operate the digital economy on barges could cool them much more efficiently than conventional centers on land, with further benefit if using zero-emission hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Does the present red ink of the Blue Economy cause us to raise the white flag of surrender? Does America allow its maritime industries to sink? Or, should the greatest maritime nation intensify its efforts to understand, live and work harmoniously with its watery regions? The nightmare that chance might superimpose a hurricane on a lockdown suffices to convince us which way to sail.

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U.S. civil federal agencies have the responsibility to understand submerged America. While scientifically excellent, their exploration is geographically spotty and national maritime strategy non-existent. Small budgets and old-fashioned at sea assets allow full exploration and characterization in too few places. From about 1930 until early in this century, the U.S. Navy led global invention and innovation in ocean science and technology. The U.S. government still spends a lot on ships, but COVID-19 shows we need to think and spend much more aggressively beyond traditional ships.

America’s non-federal sector owns great exploration and mapping talent. So too, impressive sea-going infrastructure, much of it now beached. 

Let’s fully employ the currently underemployed oceanographic talent in offshore industries and universities as full partners to federal mapping, observation and exploration efforts. Significantly ramping up support for the private sector can get the job done of rapidly and comprehensively inventing the “re” of America’s Blue Economy.  

Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York City, established and led the first global Census of Marine Life; Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney II, USN (Ret.) is president emeritus of Monmouth University, former president National Defense University and former Chief of Naval Research.