Sustainability and equity are two sides of the same coin. Equity is a prerequisite for a sustainable ocean economy, where humanity safeguards marine and coastal ecosystems, sustainably uses ocean resources, and ensures equitable distribution of benefits — especially for the more than 3 billion people who depend on marine resources for their livelihoods.

Questions on how to achieve this kind of sustainable and equitable “blue economy” have emerged across ocean industries. Here, we offer a deep dive on what equity looks like in the ocean sector.

What Are the Challenges to Creating an Equitable Ocean Economy?

Ocean equity addresses fairness in how people are treated in ocean industries and how policies regulating the use of the ocean are developed and implemented.  

The first issue is the distribution of ocean benefits.

Access to ocean resources is limited and distributed inequitably. A small number of national actors and corporations dominate the ocean economy and capture many of its benefits. For instance, five high-income countries are responsible for 86% of all fishing on the high seas (China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Spain) and 13 seafood companies control 11-16% of the global catch.

At the same time, most of the costs from ocean-based economic activities are borne by marginalized and local communities that rely on fisheries as their main source of protein. Equity and justice in the ocean rely on a top-down structure and are disproportionately shaped by a few powerful, wealthy actors.

The second issue is inclusion in decision-making about ocean resources.

Policy decisions made about the ocean not only impact the health of marine ecosystems, but also the rights and well-being of the communities that depend on the ocean for food, livelihoods, cultural value and coastal protection.

The problem is that local communities are frequently left out of decision-making processes related to ocean development and management. Take the fact that women make up 85% of the fisheries workforce, yet are often not accounted for in fisheries management positions, leading to policies that undermine their livelihoods. These barriers, frequently due to social conventions, limit women’s purchasing power to invest in better boats and equipment and explore new fishing methods or fishing grounds.

Key elements of ocean equity

A Sustainable Ocean Economy Can Drive Greater Equality

We need bolder, more holistic approaches to achieve a sustainable ocean economy. As equity is a cross-cutting issue, governments and agencies can mainstream equity into interventions at all scales, including by meaningfully including Indigenous communities and marginalized groups in decision-making. For example, Indigenous organizations have permanent status on the Arctic Council and full consultation rights regarding negotiations and decisions.

As countries continue to develop national strategies for the ocean economy, their plans must address existing inequalities. When local communities’ voices and values are taken into account for national ocean plans, it helps increase local support and improve compliance with regulations. By including equity in ocean decision-making, policies become more representative, impactful and effective.

The same goes for sustainability. There is an urgent need for 100% sustainable ocean management that effectively engages all stakeholders in planning and decision-making. St. Kitts and Nevis, for example, established a comprehensive marine zoning plan  through a participatory process, integrating sectors like fishing, conservation, shipping and tourism. The design process engaged stakeholders at all levels — from government to community groups to fishers’ associations — to define a shared vision. Implementing this plan will help the communities most dependent on ocean resources ensure their sustainability.

Additionally, advancing an equitable ocean will require transforming social, financial and political practices. This shift will require strong political will, inclusive governance and long-term planning where equity is integrated into operations, institutions and sectors.

Opportunities to Advance Ocean Equity

The coming few years offer major opportunities to act on these issues and raise awareness of social equity and justice in the ocean economy. Here are five:

1) Consider equity in intergovernmental negotiations.

Marginalized groups are typically underrepresented in major intergovernmental negotiations. The UN climate summit in Egypt in 2022 (COP27) will be a moment to support those most vulnerable to harm by a changing climate. Exactly how they receive such support remains to be seen, but equitable, ocean-based solutions should be part of the agenda. Similarly, the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Kunming, China in 2022 (COP15) can ensure equity considerations are taken into account in setting new global biodiversity protection targets.

2) Conduct more research on ocean inequity through the UN’s Decade of Science.

The UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development aims to accelerate innovative ocean science solutions. Current research on the ocean is mostly generated in high-income countries and doesn’t fully address the issues of global ocean equity. New research on the main drivers of ocean inequity can help countries address data gaps, build political capacity, and effectively plan towards 100% sustainable ocean management. More research on inequity will help drive the research agenda to support underrepresented regions and underscore the need for engaging ocean-dependent communities in decision-making processes.

3) Improve benefit-sharing in the high seas.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is currently under negotiation to establish a treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the “high seas,” areas beyond a nation’s exclusive marine economic zone, where no single country has the sole responsibility for management. These areas beyond national jurisdiction comprise 64% of the ocean.  The new legally binding treaty will address topics of ocean equity and could alleviate some existing inequities in access to ocean resources.  For example, currently, one company has registered 47% of all known marine genetic resources. As least developed countries and small island developing states have been previously underrepresented in some negotiations , a new agreement that supports capacity-building and equitable sharing of benefits of marine genetic resources would shift the industry towards greater equity.

4) Develop sustainable, inclusive and integrated ocean plans.

To promote inclusive and participatory management of national waters, countries can develop and implement Sustainable Ocean Plans (SOP), which aim to sustainably manage 100% of the ocean area under national jurisdiction. Many countries like Fiji are already developing SOPs. Key stakeholders — including Indigenous communities and women — must be fully engaged throughout the planning and decision-making processes to address the range of social, cultural, economic and ecological interests of local communities. Inclusiveness and integrated management will help develop policies that support the sustainable use of the ocean and ensure equitable benefits for current and future generations.

5) Recognize a healthy ocean as a human right.

The UN Human Rights Council’s recent resolution recognizes that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right, giving legal value to the environment. This resolution, adopted in 2021, will help protect individuals and communities from environmental risks to their health and livelihoods. The significance of granting such a right can be seen in Argentina, where the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Argentinian government accountable for providing reparations to Indigenous communities for taking their resources and harming their culture. Countries should take this resolution to the next level by developing rights-based policies in the ocean economy, acknowledging the inherent value of ocean ecosystems and their benefits to local communities.

Raising the Profile of Ocean Equity

Ocean equity and justice are foundations for sustainable development in the ocean. By incorporating an equity lens across all national and local projects, funding plans, and broader climate and ocean strategies, governments can better support communities most dependent on ocean resources. This will help address issues of inequity and raise the profile of ocean equity on the international stage.