When considering the importance of our national maritime economy, it’s hard to miss the connections between Alaska and the ocean. Alaska has the longest coastline in the U.S., and the busiest water for commercial fishing in the world. Anchorage was the second largest contributor to our nation’s Gross Domestic Product in the mineral sector in 2014. In that same year, employment across the ocean economy grew by 3.3 percent, compared to only 0.4 percent growth broadly across the state. Alaska and the blue economy are inextricably linked, each dependent on the other.
Alaskans know better than anyone that the stability and growth of our overall economy is tied closely to the ocean. Projections show growth in the ocean economy outpacing the global economy, doubling its contribution to global value from $1.5 trillion in 2010 to $3 trillion in 2030. But a strong ocean economy doesn’t just happen — it is dependent on foundational knowledge of the sea and its processes, as well as remarkable leaps forward in technology. If we didn’t understand tides, storms, ice, seas, and currents to the extent that we do today, or if the ALVIN had never been invented to explore the ocean, there’s little chance the nation would have seen such an economic boom (like maritime traffic quadrupling in the last quarter century). And if we cannot continue to leverage technological advancements to enhance our understanding of important ocean changes, we will lose out on the potential of the blue economy.
A critical part of building and improving our knowledge of the ocean and its impacts is ocean observation and the ships that enable such monitoring. When the USS Albatross, the first research vessel built specifically for marine research, was commissioned in 1882, few onboard could likely have imagined the state of our expanded ocean knowledge today – let alone the dozens of research vessels spanning several federal agencies in use currently. What does our future hold for ocean research vessels? Will oceanographic research expand to commercial vessels, complementing the federal investment?
Even today, with our ability to remotely gather information from buoys, gliders, unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAV), satellites, aircraft, drilling platforms, and more, we still require ships to integrate with other technologies to help us understand our underwater world. The Okeanos Explorer, our country’s first federally funded ship dedicated to ocean discovery, includes advanced technologies — both on the ship itself and in the sensors it deploys. For example, a hull-mounted multibeam sonar can map the seafloor in high definition, providing groundbreaking information that can also serve as a starting point for ROV visual surveys. The data from ocean observation don’t just benefit oceanographers; ocean monitoring is an essential part of the growing ocean economy.
As we look to the future, there are huge changes in store for the ocean and Alaska’s economy, by extension. But with these changes come the opportunity, rooted in good ocean science and advanced technology, for abundant economic growth. For example, melting sea ice is indicative of changing ocean conditions that must be considered and addressed, and maritime industries must understand this for both safety and commercial purposes. This is where ocean observations play a critical role in improving navigational techniques and providing accurate maps. Likewise, what will happen to the fishing industry as the ice melts and there is an influx of freshwater? Whatever the result may be, whether it’s the appearance of unexpected species or changes to the distributions of historic ones, ocean observations will play a pivotal role in helping us understand the ocean’s productivity — where the fish are, where they are going and why, and how we can sustainably manage this resource into the future.
Nowhere is the tie between the ocean and the economy clearer than in Alaska. The benefits of understanding the ocean, through increased observations and advanced technology, will benefit Alaska’s economy and enable continued growth for the blue economy globally. A recent report states that “a scientific understanding of the ocean … is a vital pre-requisite for the sustainable operation of all ocean-based industries.” This week, a working group of representatives from federal agencies and military, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, nonprofits, and science associations are meeting at the Oceans ‘17 Conference in Anchorage to discuss the preservation of adequate funding for the federal oceanographic fleet that enables such critical research. We still have some catching up to do for that to happen, but the investment in Alaska’s ocean economy — and the blue economy as a whole — is more than worth the cost.
• Jon White is President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit organization representing the leading ocean science and technology institutions — public and private, academia, aquaria and industry. Donna Kocak is President of the Marine Technology Society, a nonprofit providing members of academia, government and industry a common forum for the exchange of information and ideas, advancing the awareness, understanding, advancement and application of marine technology.