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17 November 2020 5 min read

Our science will underpin integrated uses for the development of offshore sites to boost Australia’s blue economy.

Advanced economies are projected to shrink by 7 per cent as a result of COVID-19. Supply chains are disrupted, economic activity is falling, and livelihoods are affected.

Ocean industries are not immune. With travel restrictions in place, tourism has taken a huge financial hit, as have fisheries. Around 10 per cent of the world’s population relies on fishing for their livelihoods. When coronavirus first emerged, a ban on live exports saw the Torres Strait tropical rock lobster fishery experience a troubling reduction in income. And that’s just one example.

To drive COVID recovery, scientists, government and industry are paving the way for utilising the resources from our marine estate sustainably to deliver long-term economic benefits for Australia, and the world. This is our blue economy.

Investing in new marine industries

The blue economy is worth an estimated US$1.5 trillion globally and up to $68 billion per annum in Australia.

The blue economy is rapidly growing, with industries like marine renewable energy one of the fastest growing sectors globally. For example, the International Energy Agency has reported that between 2010 and 2018 global offshore wind market grew nearly 30 per cent per year. Within the next 10-15 years, the value of the blue economy in Australia is predicted to double, as more significant investment is fed into infrastructure and marine resource development.

CSIRO’s Beth Fulton is an expert in ecosystem modelling and is leading the Environment and Ecosystems Program for the Blue Economy CRC. The research cooperative will for the first time bring the aquaculture and renewable energy sectors together to address the challenges of offshore food and energy production.

“The current coronavirus driven situation demonstrates that investment in new, sustainable and equitable marine industries is more important than ever,” says Fulton.

“Australia has the third largest marine estate in the world. Our offshore ocean environment is key to generating new job opportunities and future economic security. But robust scientific knowledge is critical for supporting investments in sustainable aquaculture, offshore renewables and ecosystem restoration.”

Building a successful framework to manage risk

For the program, Fulton will be leading work on an extensive risk assessment framework aimed at taking an integrated, adaptive and whole of life cycle perspective for a range of purpose-built blue economy uses. It will assess risks associated with the use of offshore sites for aquaculture and renewable energy projects, establish the criteria needed for development and highlight new opportunities to protect ecosystems while delivering on investment.

“Our science is underpinning how best to minimise the environmental footprint of infrastructure, connect industries, inform policy makers and generate equitable outcomes for Traditional Owners,” says Fulton.

“It’s then we can maximise the potential of these emerging industries while protecting and managing ecosystem health and marine life,” says Fulton.

Delivering future food security

Aquaculture is the fastest growing global food-producing sector, with the highest per capita consumers of seafood located in Asia. Wild caught fish alone can’t meet the fish-derived protein needs of the world’s growing population.

Aquaculture already exists in near-shore locations. Moving aquaculture sites to the open ocean provides a platform to expand industry opportunities. This includes renewable and off-grid energy storage systems to power these offshore environments.

“Aquaculture farming is a key area for expansion to build Australia’s blue economy. However, for it to be successful, we need to understand how offshore conditions influence the farms, and how the farms interact with the environment, such as large marine life like whales or sharks, and wild fish stocks,” says Fulton.

“Modelling is one way of understanding all these components and ways to integrate new options to find novel solutions. For instance, we can bring together multiple species to create mini-ecosystems on the farms, to improve productivity and manage waste.”

The CRC will also look at the development of integrated multi-use platforms, including marine spatial planning and site selection. This will ensure installations are in areas with good production conditions that will not put undue pressure on the environment or prevent cultural activities.

“We will be able to identify the environmental conditions needed, while outlining the economic feasibility of what will, and won’t work. We will also track operational performance and predict outcomes and impacts,” explains Fulton.

“Other key components will be managing waste and zero net fuels for shipping."

This scientific information will be critical for guiding industry best practice.

As part of the Blue Economy CRC, innovative monitoring systems will be investigated so that 24/7 coverage will be possible even in the roughest weather. Real-time data will be available to government, industry and the public.

Aquaculture already exists in near-shore locations. Offshore locations will meet demand for seafood products for the world’s population. Our research will look at associated risks and best practice.

Achieving sustainability and equity

One current offshore challenge is managing existing infrastructure that has come to the end of its life. There are a range of possibilities. Building artificial reefs could generate new homes for an abundance of marine life. This could support conservation efforts of marine species, the establishment of marine protected areas and a reduction in carbon emissions. Carbon capture systems are another example, to pump carbon back into the earth.

But decommissioning infrastructure also comes with risks, from invasive species to contaminants. These risks need to be well-managed to ensure the best ecosystem management procedures and protocols are in place.

“The emerging blue economy in Australia is a really exciting space – not only from a science perspective, but also for the significant economic boost it could bring to Australia,” says Fulton.

“To really make this work for Australia, we need to bring all forms of knowledge into the decision-making process. This includes Traditional Ecological Knowledge from Australia’s First Peoples, whose connection to our oceans are some of the longest running anywhere in the world.

“The time is now to set the very best standards to achieve sustainability and equity.”

Utilising Australia’s marine resources will boost Australia’s blue economy

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