By Juliette Lee, MEM’22, and Sandunie Liyanagamage, MEM’23

DURHAM, N.C. – The rapid industrialization of our oceans is bringing new challenges—but also new opportunities—for promoting sustainable economic growth while protecting vulnerable communities and environments and enhancing their climate resilience.

That was the takeaway of the inaugural Blue Economy Summit, a student-led conference hosted by the Oceans@Duke Student Cabinet on March 18 and 19.

The Oceans@Duke Student Cabinet is already busy at work planning next year’s summit, but first, we’d like to reflect on the lessons learned and insights gained from this year’s event.

The summit brought together hundreds of students and professionals for a deep dive into the inherently complex and contradictory nature of the “blue economy,” in which enthusiasm for harvesting the oceans’ resources for economic growth and fostering equitable livelihoods is countered by concerns that this increased activity could overwhelm increasingly vulnerable environments and communities.

Dan Vermeer, director of the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) and professor of the practice at the Fuqua School of Business, teed up this contradiction in his presentation discussing the “blue acceleration” as industries emerge rapidly in the ocean. Our relationship with the ocean is changing now, he said.

Keynote speaker Alexandra Cousteau, co-founder of Oceans 2050 and granddaughter of the renowned ocean explorer Jacque-Yves Cousteau, told the audience that rapid industrialization presents risks but also opportunities for reimagining the business-as-usual model. We must focus on the blue economy as a regenerative economy that helps ensure abundance in the ocean as a cornerstone for future environmental health and economic growth, Cousteau said.

Alex Dehgan, CEO and co-founder of Conservation X Labs and a 1991 Duke graduate with degrees in zoology and international relations, focused his keynote address on

Blue Economy Summit

the positive impacts technology and innovation are having in the ocean space, and on how harnessing expertise and innovations from multiple fields and sectors often yields the best solutions.

Dehgan’s message was complemented by presentations by blue-tech entrepreneurs from multiple sectors who took part in the summit’s Oceans Innovations Showcase or participated in its Technology, Innovation, Development and Equity (TIDE) talks and panel discussions. Amber Jackson and Emily Hazewood, co-founders of Blue Latitudes LLC, explained how oil rigs can be turned into artificial reefs to regenerate local ecological abundance. Ivan Francis, co-founder and CEO of Argoneta, took us to the seafloor through a virtual reality experience. Alison Rogers, CEO and co-founder of USEFULL, shared her tech-enabled circular economy solution designed to eliminate single-use food/beverage products.

These and other talks and presentations at this year’s summit shed light on three of the most pressing challenges facing our oceans today—blue justice, climate mitigation, and coastal resilience.

In her TIDES talk, Piera Torturo of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), delved into how the island nations that will be most impacted by climate change are also the ones that rely most heavily on the ocean for their economy. Her presentation underscored why blue justice must be front and center in any discussion on the blue economy.

During the panel discussion on “Ensuring Sustainable Livelihood and Blue Justice,” we heard how ensuring equity and fairness is driven by the importance of communities and their relationship to the ocean.

During the panel discussion on “Building Coastal Resilience in a Changing Climate,” we learned how communities are collaborating with academic researchers to apply adaptive management technologies such as living shorelines to mitigate the local effects of sea-level rise. We also learned about the benefits that can accrue when communities or industries such as small-scale fisheries, the largest employer within the blue economy, are champions of adaptive management, take part in the research and have a direct voice in decision making.

Usually, discussions about ocean sustainability conclude with a sense of doom and gloom, but this conference provided an opportunity for what Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, has coined “ocean optimism.” By putting equity at the center of the conversation, we feel that the Oceans@Duke Student Cabinet succeeded in their goal of shifting the narrative from extractive to equitable.

As John Virdin, director of the Coastal and Ocean Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, put it when closing the conference “we have a leadership deficit in the ocean.” Through interdisciplinary conversations such as those fostered at the Blue Economy Summit, young leaders have the opportunity to bring in diverse perspectives on the ocean and change the narrative.

Oceans@Duke is an interdisciplinary community of scholars at Duke University working at the intersections of science, governance, and business to promote ocean sustainability.

Sponsors of the Blue Economy Summit and Oceans@Duke include the Gross Family Foundation, Equinor, Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, Investable Oceans, the Ocean Conservancy, and the Ocean Foundation.