The blue economy could provide opportunities for countries like TT during uncertain economic times caused by the covid19 pandemic and volatile global energy prices. This formed part of the discussions in a Beyond the Blue webinar hosted by the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) on Monday.
According to a 2017 document published by the World Bank and the United Nations, the blue economy is defined as "the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem."
The blue economy consists of several components. These include established traditional ocean industries such as fisheries, tourism, and maritime transport. New and emerging activities, such as offshore renewable energy, aquaculture, seabed extractive activities, marine biotechnology and bio-prospecting, are other components of the blue economy.
UWI Professor John Agard said current economic models used by many countries are linear. He explained this involved raw materials being collected, transformed into products that are used until they are finally discarded as waste. Value is created in this economic model by producing and selling as many products as possible.
In contrast, Agard said the blue economy operates more on the circular economy model. This model uses resources for as long as possible, extracts maximum value from them while they are being used, with products and materials being recovered and regenerated at the end of their service life. He argued such a model may be more useful to countries like TT, given the current economic scenario.
Identifying fishing as one of the blue economy's components which could benefit TT, Agard observed, "TT is well renowned for its bake and shark." But Agard said, "One of the issues we have to deal with is the sustainability (of the fishing industry)." He explained, "In the ocean space, people like to fish down the food web."
Agard said this involves the harvesting of big fish such as shark, kingfish and carite. "We should not over fish and have a lot of numbers because there are a number of species, that we are over fishing." Regionally, Agard said, "We have been going after big fish and the ecosystem had been collapsing for long time. We have been harvesting off the big fish and that destabilises the ecosystem."
After noting the threat which sargassum has posed to TT's coastline over time, Agard said there could be economic opportunities derived from sargassum. While tourists will not go to beaches where there is rotting sargassum, Agard said, "There are very clever persons in TT." He disclosed that a team at UWI has developed "bioplastics out of sargassum." Agard said they are talking with some private sector companies "about converting that plastic into products." He explained, "That plastic is not going to last for 1,000 years in the environment."
Agard said once this plastic is planted in the ground, "it decays very quickly and becomes fertiliser." He said there is a company in St Lucia which is selling fertilisers made from sargassum. "There are enormous opportunities in this blue economy to make money, provide jobs and so forth."
Agard said, "It's not just about oil and gas. We need to develop lots of products and diversify the economy of TT." Since TT has "15 times more water than land," Agard said there was no reason why blue economic prospects cannot be explored. With a growing focus on renewable energy, Agard suggested a feasibility study be done regarding offshore wind energy in TT. While Trinidad's east coast could provide locations for onshore wind energy projects, Agard said there have been studies which show offshore wind energy had great potential.
He said if there are offshore oil rigs which are no longer in use, windmills could be constructed on them. Agard suggested that Tobago consider diversifying its tourism product. "Tobago needs to go in the direction of the eco-tourism." According to Agard, "People go on expensive holidays and they are prepared to pay money to stay in a hotel, to go and snorkel or dive on coral reefs."
He said there are tourists who would want to explore the Main Ridge and other protected areas on land in Tobago. "That is part of the direction that TT needs to go in."
Agard said financing of blue economy projects could come from the issue of blue bonds or debt for nature swaps. The former is a debt instrument issued by governments or development banks to finance marine and ocean based projects which have positive environmental and economic benefits.
Agard said the Seychelles launched the world's first blue bond in October 2018, raising US$15 million. He explained the latter involves countries that owe monies to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), having the IMF forgive those debts in exchange for those countries protecting their natural environments and supporting the blue economy.
TT Energy Chamber president and CEO Dr Thackwray Driver said trade and transport in the maritime sector was another component of the blue economy. He said opportunities in this area for local service companies exist in the oil and gas industries in Guyana and Suriname. Driver said other potential opportunities exist in Barbados, Grenada and even in Venezuela. But he added the opportunities in Venezuela depended on "what happens there with the politics."
TT-born CEO of US-based ALG Eternal, David Ramjohn, said the company is a major player in the blue economy through the development of products based on microalgae. These include Elix Earth fertiliser and AlgAllure skin care products. With the global algae market expected to be worth US$320 billion by 2030, Ramjohn said this was a market that local businesses could tap into.
Republic Bank treasury manager Baldath Ramkissoon said, "When we look at financing the blue economy, we have had client relationships that span well over two decades, some as much as five decades." Ramkissoon said by virtue of the bank's footprint in the Caribbean, "we bring a perspective across the blue economy, both in TT and across the markets that we operate in." He added that bank assists entrepreneurs and companies in financing machinery, equipment, working capital, infrastructure and property.
Simmons and Associates managing director David Simmons said while the cruise ship industry has been negatively impacted by covid19, it will rebound eventually. Simmons said when it does, Caribbean countries should examine ways to get more value out of cruise ship visits to their respective jurisdictions. "We need a national ocean policy."
Simmons observed TT is already taking steps towards creating a maritime policy and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States is exploring ways to better use its marine space. He suggested the period 2021 to 2030, be a time when regional governments seek to declare the Caribbean Sea as "a zone of sustainable development."
Council of Presidents for the Environment (COPE) president Dr Ryan Mohammed agreed there were opportunities in the blue economy. But he also cautioned that some people may use the blue economy as a cover for activities which harm the economy. Mohammed said these include the transportation of hazardous waste through the region and condoning over fishing. He called for proper mechanisms to be implemented to ensure that such activities do not happen.