Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Journal Article Review of Voyer, et al (2018). “Shades of Blue: What do Competing Interpretations of the Blue Economy Mean for Oceans Governance?”

Blue Economy

Roxane de Waegh and Lucas Watt

Following our previous week’s discussion concerning deep sea mining; this week we discuss how the Blue Economy resource paradigm is being applied to the Pacific. In our previous discussion we argued that deep sea mining was part of a blue economy resource paradigm which aims to open the ocean up resource extraction including deep sea minerals. What is clear however is that the blue economy also intends to draw upon the ideologies of its terrestrial cousin, the Green Economy. Just like the green economy, the blue economy has a triple bottom line of environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic growth. This broad concept of blue economy is starting to be used by a diverse array of social, political, and environmental actors, across different regions of the world; however what is also clear is that depending on who is using or applying the term there is also a diverse array of emphasis on which one of these objectives are the most important in relation to the others. It is this context of conceptual variability that different actors emphasize within the term we analyze Voyer et al (2018), “Shades of Blue: what do competing interpretations of the blue economy mean for oceans governance?“.

Roxane de Waegh argues that the more sustainability objectives of the blue economy are under-represented and under-pursued in the blue economy paradigm primarily because of tensions with its economic objectives. Including sustainability objectives in the blue economy paradigm may merely disarm resistance to the commercial commodification of the oceans resources, in ways that marginalize Pacific voices in this process. Lucas Watt focuses on the methodological limitations of Voyer et al (2018). Due to the limits of their methodology, they arrive at a macro overview of how the term blue economy is used. While this macro overview has some uses for broad discourse analysis, these macro definitions are not attentive to regional, institutional, and contextual variances in how the term is applied. This limits our understanding of the many “shades” of the blue economy.

What is the role of the Blue Economy in the ”neoliberalisation” of the oceans – and is this a desirable path forward for oceans governance? – Roxane de Waegh

Voyer, et al. (2018), “Shades of blue: what do competing interpretations of the Blue Economy mean for oceans governance?”, question the role of the Blue Economy in the neoliberalisation of the oceans by reflecting on the growing trend towards commodification and valuation of nature. This review analyses how Voyer, et al. (2018) place their argument within the existing literature on the Blue Economy and the various existing finance mechanisms for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Through a deep analytical reflection, this review deeply considers whether this economically driven financial scheme is the appropriate strategy to effectively safeguard the ocean’s resources and the traditional sociocultural economies that depend on them.

Three decades prior to the emergence of the concept of a “Blue Economy”, there was the Law of the Sea treaty, or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982). UNCLOS is an international agreement that was established to define coastal and maritime boundaries, to regulate seabed exploration not within territorial claims, and to distribute revenue from regulated exploration (UNCLOS, 1982). Since the adoption of the UNCLOS treaty in 1982, countries around the world have been actively involved in efforts to establish national sovereignty over marine spaces and the resources that are contained within them (Kildow & McIlgorm, 2010). In other words, UNCLOS induced territorial instinct to where there was none before. This is especially the case in Oceania, where Pacific Island States are increasingly being recognised as large maritime states with incredible economic development potential. This shift of interest from a local sense of belonging, reciprocity and relationship to the land and sea, to a sense of ownership, sovereignty, and urge for development marked the beginning of the neoliberalisation of the oceans. The Blue Economy represents a modern, capitalistic and highly market-oriented version of UNCLOS. The Blue Economy has accelerated the pace of neoliberalisation and intensified the urge of development in Oceania by redefining Pacific Islands States from ‘’Small Island Developing States’’ to “Large Ocean States”, thereby reframing their place in global economies and providing them with a greater role at the negotiating table. But what does this term actually mean, and how does it carry so much influential power, especially over small island states around the world?

Voyer, et al. (2018) offer a multi-layered analytical discussion that examines the interpretation and use of the Blue Economy concept. Most definitions of the Blue Economy include the triple bottom line objectives of environmental sustainability, economic growth and social equity, driven by integrated governance approach and technological innovation (Keen, Schwarz & Wini-Simeon, 2017; Smith-Godfrey, 2016). However, the analysis of the way the term was employed highlights how the Blue Economy concept can be easily manipulated by various interest groups to achieve desired goals and project outcomes (Silver et al., 2015). The four dominant groups that employ the Blue Economy concept, with vast differences in interpretations, are (1) environmental NGOs who perceive oceans as natural capital, (2) development agencies and marine industries such as fisheries and shipping who perceive oceans as a good business, (3) Pacific Island States who perceive oceans as integral to their livelihoods and wellbeing, and (4) small scale fisheries organisations who perceive oceans as source of food security and poverty reduction for the world’s poor. Shockingly, Voyer et al. (2018) and Silver et al. (2015) were not able to identify a single Blue Economy project that was associated with the natural capital lens. The closest link between oceans as natural capital and the Blue Economy was the connection to a broader economic and development narrative. For example, environmental NGOs have used the concept of the Blue Economy to identify economic benefits derived from healthy marine ecosystems (Voyer et al., 2018). Evidently, the role of the Blue Economy in improving environmental stewardship, protection and restoration of marine ecosystem is largely absent, or simply does not exist.

The misleading and ambiguous nature of the Blue Economy concept is found within the competing dichotomy of development priorities and environmental stewardship urgencies. There is inherent contradiction in the way that the Blue Economy perceives the oceans as a development space. On the one hand, the Blue Economy concept illustrates oceans as an area of opportunity, growth, and development. On the other hand, The Blue Economy also recognises the increasing pressures on the oceans, ranging from climate change to the anthropogenic threats of overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution (Voyer et al., 2018). The concept seeks to integrate marine-based development opportunities with environmental stewardship and protection, however there is limited evidence that demonstrates how or even if the Blue Economy prioritizes the conservation of marine biodiversity over the extractive economic opportunities. The Blue Economy simply “embraces the opportunities associated with the ocean, while recognizing, accounting for and in, in some cases, addressing its threats”(Voyer et al., 2018). This is no different than the Green Economy, which uses capitalistic markets to address environmental threats (Arsel & Buscher, 2012; Castree, 2010; Corson, MacDonald & Neimark, 2013). Unfortunately, merely recognizing that there is an existing threat on biodiversity and the wellbeing of a vast and complex ecosystem is not enough to protect it. Tragically, the misunderstood and ambiguous concept of the Blue Economy is already playing a central role in negotiations over the future use of the world’s oceans, including the progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Voyer et al., 2018).

In conclusion, one can find solace in recognising a simple pattern, and raising awareness on this modest, yet disturbing understanding. The shift from terrestrial land-based economies to marine-based economies is not a result of some radical technological innovation or supreme discovery. The shift in interest is directly linked to the global depletion of terrestrial resources (OECD, 2016). It is quite evident that the destruction and degradation of terrestrial resources is a result of the financial structures and economic incentives that were directly linked to them to foster the growth of a Green Economy. Within this simple realization, we must as ask ourselves why we are even considering attaching the very same economic system that destroyed our forests, to our oceans. The increasingly popular term “Blue Economy” seeks to divert the attention away from its only inherent aim, which is to seek ocean-based economic opportunities, by painting an illusion of environmental stewardship and biodiversity protection. The bottom line is that the oceans have become development spaces, from coastal waters to the high seas, and every state with the slightest maritime interests is racing to identify and exploit the resources for the sole purpose to building their economies. It is critical that we being to look elsewhere for an effective and resilient strategy that can support the social and ecological wellbeing of the global community. Perhaps the solutions are found within traditional knowledge systems, or perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. We must be humble and patient in our quest for knowledge. We must stop repeating history and expect different results – that is, after all, the definition of insanity.

A Useful but Limited Macro-Scope of the Blue Economy – Lucas Watt

Voyer et al (2018) called their article “Shades of Blue” indicating that they were going to identify the many different meanings attached to the term Blue Economy. I was left a slightly disappointed as they only identified four very macro uses of the blue economy; far from “fifty shades” that I expected. This was primarily due to the type of methodology they used. They used a particular literature search methodology where the keyword “blue-economy” and appropriate synonyms were entered into a targeted web search. Through this process, a variety of “grey literature” concerning the blue economy was obtained. From the articles they found, they categorized them according to four common themes. The four thematic categories they identified in the literature were as follows (pp. 604-606):

  1. Oceans as Natural Capital: “The key focus of this body of literature was prioritization of these aspects of sustainable development, alongside human health and well-being”
  2. Oceans as Livelihoods: “The cluster analysis indicated a co-occurrence of human health and safety sub-themes, including themes related to livelihoods, food security, poverty alleviation and income and employment generation”
  3. Oceans as Good Business: “… relating to the classification of component sectors of a blue economy, the valuation of those sectors and the identification of sector specific growth strategies”
  4. Oceans as a Driver of Innovation: “the co-occurrence of sub-themes relating to investment , innovative financing and private sector investment in blue growth strategies… The oceans as good business and oceans as a driver of innovation, are closely related as, innovation, investment and public/private sector partnership are seen as key drivers of the success of blue growth strategies”

They further categorize these four themes in to two whereby (1) oceans as natural capital / ocean as livelihoods and (2) oceans as good business / oceans as drivers of innovation were represented as diametrically opposed to the other. Clearly this separates the blue economy paradigm out to its sustainability and economic focuses in ways that represent an underlying tension in the term.

This focus on thematic tension leads to some insightful but brief discussion at the end of the article. In particular Voyer et al (2021) are attentive to broad processes occurring in the maritime domain which operate in this context of tension, and may even be created by this tension. Of particular note is their discussion on delimitation and securitization. They argue that Ocean spaces are being controlled, defined, occupied, guarded, in ways to ensure that blue economy objectives are pursued. However, until some form of coherence is arrived at in the blue economy term it is hard to specify what exactly this ocean space is being governed for and against. They imply that delimitation and securitization may be occurring in ocean spaces not to pursue inclusive blue economy objectives, but to assert internal sub blue economy objectives. With its internal contradications, the blue economy “may pose a serious threat by generating conflict and disputes” (Voyer et al, 2021, pg 611). The article also brought up blue washing where the sustainability objectives of the blue economy paradigm may be being used as a method to disarm resistance to its more economic objectives. This again plays off this fundamental sustainability/economic thematic tension within the blue economy term which their literature review highlights well.

There is value in this meta literature search type methodology that analyses thematic tensions and alliances, however there are methodological limits in their study. Firstly, there is little context, institution, or region specific analysis of the use of the term. A term thematically analyzed but not grounded in any particular context is fundamentally going to miss the many different “shades” or slight variations in how it is used. How the multitude of blue economy articles, resources, and ideas interact in one regional or contextual setting could be vastly different to another. While it would be difficult to represent this in a desk literature search type methodology, this gap could have been narrowed by segmenting articles articles according to region or setting (more than they already have), and then presenting how this culminated in different blue economy outcomes. This would have assisted them in further identifying the different “shade” gradients in their analysis.

Secondly, the thematic distinctions, alliances, and contradictions, are certainly not as black and white as they portray. Articles cannot be black boxed into a theme as easily as they have done here. For instance, are the business and livelihoods themes so diametrically opposed to one another in the literature? I could see that there would be some contexts where a less contradictory alliance between oceans as livelihoods and oceans as good business could exist in theory if carried out in a genuine and integrated manner. Are business and natural capital themes also opposed to one another in the literature? Attention to the natural capital of the ocean in the fisheries sector has been proven out through economic models to be good business in the long run (World Bank, 2009). To represent themes in the blue economy with specificity requires being attentive to the possibility of articles straddling multiple themes and allying with other themes in more complementary ways.

These methodological issues are not uncommon in literature reviews, but are not un-improvable. I suspect more blue economy review articles will be published in future building upon Voyer et al (2018), just as they had done for Silver et al (2015). Literature review articles also require further development of the articles they identify and cite which will also occur over time. Even though I am of the informed belief that the primary tension they have identified between sustainability and economics is present within the blue economy term; further contextual analysis and nuance in defining their thematic categories would combine to give more specificity to their analysis. As it stands Voyer et al (2018) offer a useful but limited macro-scope of the “blue economy”.

*This is a an article review where the authors express their interpretations of the article, supplemented with their own academic and personal knowledge. Any clarifications or other points of discussion are welcomed in the discussion section below*

TransOcean is a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant project 

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 802223


Arsel, M., & Büscher, B. (2012). Nature™ Inc.: Changes and continuities in neoliberal conservation and market-based environ[1]mental policy. Development and Change, 43(1), 53–78. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2012.01752.x

Castree, N. (2010). Neoliberalism and the biophysical environment 1: What ‘neoliberalism’ is, and what difference nature makes to it. Geography Compass, 4(12), 1725. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login. aspx?direct=true&db=edo&AN=ejs22630095&site==eds-live

Corson, C., MacDonald, K. I., & Neimark, B. (2013). Grabbing ‘green’: markets, environmental governance and the materialization of natural capital. Human Geography, 6(1), 1–15.

Keen, M. R., Schwarz, A.-M., & Wini-Simeon, L. (2018). Towards defining the Blue Economy: Practical lessons from Pacific Ocean governance. Marine Policy. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2017.03.002

Kildow, J. T., & McIlgorm, A. (2010). The importance of estimating the contribution of the oceans to national economies. Marine Policy, 34(3), 367–374. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2009.08.006

OECD. (2016). The Ocean Economy in 2030. Author. Retrieved from http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/the-ocean-economy%5B1%5Din-2030_9789264251724-e

Silver, J. J., Gray, N. J., Campbell, L. M., Fairbanks, L. W., & Gruby, R. L. (2015). Blue economy and competing discourses in inter[1]national oceans governance. The Journal of Environment & Development, 24(2), 135–160. doi:10.1177/1070496515580797

Smith-Godfrey, S. (2016). Defining the Blue Economy. Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India, 12 (1), 58–64. doi:10.1080/09733159.2016.1175131

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1833 (1982).

Voyer, M., Schofield, C., Azmi, K., Warner, R., McIlgorm, A., & Quirk, G. (2018). Maritime security and the blue economy: Intersections and interdependencies in the Indian ocean. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 1–21. doi:10.1080/19480881. 2018.1418155

World Bank, FAO, Kelleher, K., Willmann, R., & Arnason, R. (2009). The sunken billions: the economic justification for fisheries reform. The World Bank.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

  • roxanedewaegh

    My name is Roxane de Waegh and I am a PhD student at the Faculty of Culture and Society at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. I am originally from Belgium, but grew up a bit all over the world, including Congo, Senegal, Singapore, Chile, Argentina, Japan, USA, and Canada. The ocean, the concept of remoteness, and the complexity of connectivity have always fascinated me. After working as a marine biologist for nearly 6 years with various environmental NGOs in remote coastal communities, including Myanmar, Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, I have come back to the academic world, hoping to deepen my understanding of the intrinsic paradoxical nature of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) in marginalised coastal communities.

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