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Partnership Symposium: on course towards a sustainable blue economy

During two days in mid-February in the historic setting of Belgium's Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the European blue economy community gathered to chart a transformative course towards sustainability. The first Sustainable Blue Economy Partnership Symposium rallied the wider community from science, policy and business behind the Partnership’s efforts, informed firsthand about new projects and funding opportunities, and explored research and innovation-related areas which the Partnership could take on board during the coming years. 

Waving the blue arm of the Green Deal  

Presenters of welcoming and introductory notes from the European Commission, international organisations and countries provided different perspectives, but were aligned in acknowledging the substantial role of the Sustainable Blue Economy Partnership in achieving the EU's ambitious Green Deal. Michele Guerrini of the Permanent Representation of Italy to the EU praised the Partnership's convening role for different stakeholder and initiatives. Elisabetta Balzi of the European Commission DG RTD suggested that the ongoing collaboration even had the potential to deliver a European Blue Deal. John Bell from the European Commission DG RTD had reminded that the European Union is an Ocean Union and Christina Abildgaard of the Research Council of Norway raised that the ocean is part of sustainable solutions for food, energy, and other demands we have. 

Setting the scene for the Symposium discussions, Raschad Al Khafaji of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, described the sustainable blue economy as a "beacon of hope" to be "embraced with courage, conviction, and an unwavering commitment to collaboration." He shared the vision that sustainable aquaculture offers a path towards affordable healthy diets, ensuring environmental stewardship and inclusive growth. 

Douglas Wallace of the MEOPAR Network in Canada, in his overseas perspective on the blue economy, shared his take on the trans-Atlantic oceanographic connection that underpins the political dialogues: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in Canadian waters impacts Europe.” Familiar to European ears, he also grapples with enabling a decentralized, diverse ocean community to work together effectively to provide the knowledge needed on expanding blue economic sectors, such as marine tourism or carbon dioxide removal. 

For us Europeans, John Bell quotes might resonate with widespread hopes and believes that "without a healthy ocean, our Europe simply cannot achieve the [...] transitions that need to happen as part of the European Green Deal" and that "through Horizon Europe and this Partnership, together with the Mission Restore our Ocean and Waters, we have a formidable alliance with which [...] we're setting a new direction towards a blue transition that is sustainable, fair, socially inclusive and economically promising." 

First projects set sail 

Partnership coordinator Margherita Cappelletto from the Ministry of Universities and Research in Italy reflected on the first year of the Partnership. She also offered a forward-look into ambitions and plans, which include to “add further value, strengthening the European research area and creating more critical mass to support the autonomy of the European Union.” She offered an outlook that the Partnership will facilitate countries’ alignment of national, thematic, and monitoring programmes and the sharing of research infrastructures through open calls for transnational access.

The Symposium participants got acquainted with the batch of 19 projects financed by the Partnership through the first joint transnational call. Project posters attracted great interest during the event and prolong as a digital poster exhibition here. In addition, five of the projects, one from each of the call’s priority areas, featured in a panel sharing their plans as the projects are about to kick off. The diverse projects’ themes included sustainability in the aquaculture industry, ocean animal tracking, modular floating islands for offshore multi-use, Marine Spatial Planning foresight, and use of marine sources and wastes. For participants whose interest for the Partnership projects was stirred, Maurice Heral from the National Research Agency in France presented the second Partnership call that had just been launched with a deadline for pre-proposals on 10 April. More information about the second call can be found here

What next course on this Partnership voyage?  

Three foresight panels followed on topics the Partnership is exploring as opportunities for further engagement. Julie Olivier from the Research Centre Jülich in Germany introduced the three panel topics by highlighting conclusions from expert workshops that the Partnership had convened on each topic.  

A panel on the topic of ocean observation debated how fit for purpose they are to promote a sustainable blue economy. Marie-Hélène Rio from the European Space Agency emphasized the importance of providing support for monitoring the impact of activities on the environment and for regulating authorities to make informed decisions. Joaquin Tintoré from the Balearic Islands Coastal Ocean Observing and Forecasting System revealed his realisations that "through scientific excellence we are able to respond to societal needs, but to do that we must listen to the needs of society," and that in spite of fair amounts of data at hand he almost never seems to have the data requested for the specific locations and at the specific scales. The SME Unseenlabs, with panelist Rachid Nedjar, generates satellite data to enhance maritime security and combat illegal activities at sea. Nedjar felt it is imperative to address gaps in conventional systems by leveraging new data sources and technologies and that democratizing access to such data is crucial for their continuous improvement and wider adoption. 

A panel on innovative governance, with strong representation from the private sector, acknowledged the need for both carrot and stick to foster sustainable innovation. With the stick typically being regulation, the business representatives particularly emphasized the carrot, such as funding and other financial incentives to reduce the risk associated with going green. They also stressed the need for authorities to invest in the infrastructure needed by innovative sustainable businesses. As an example, Agnes Árnadóttir, CEO of shipping company Brim Explorer, exemplified that their operation of electric tourism vessels is dependent on the availability of charging facilities at their ports of call. Hayri Deniz of the Abalıoğlu Fish and Food Products Corp. & Mugla Fish Farmers Association referred to past mistakes that caused environmental pollution, but highlighted new political counter measures, such as a monitoring and management system. Caroline Bocquel from Ireland’s Seafood Agency underpinned a sense that Europe has come a long way already with good examples of regulations that worked well in practice, such as the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund.  

In a panel on an inclusive and just blue economy, Marloes Kraan from Wageningen University advocated for the social sciences and humanities to ask probing questions about the transformation to a sustainable blue economy: blue for whom, who is winning, who is losing and who is at the table? Rositsa Stoeva from the Black Sea Economic Cooperation stressed that in the Black Sea the blue economy is high on the agendas of the region. She acknowledged that the current, very serious situation in the Black Sea does not make it easy to cooperate on innovating governance, but felt that the reality of sharing the same sea will eventually gather all members states of the region around the table. Sophia Efstathiou of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology argued to bring social sciences and humanities into designing blue economic interventions. Taking food as an example, she stressed that it is not just calories or CO2 emissions, but also culture and ethics. To the Partnership, she suggested a funding call that asks for social perspectives. 

Discovering the wonders of the sea 

The role of culture in the blue economy, a still underappreciated element in socioeconomic transformations, was also addressed in the Symposium. The renowned Belgian actor and singer Wim Opbrouck brought his accordion and sang the beloved sea shanties “Lowlands away” and the “Drunken sailor” during two cultural intermezzi. He also contributed to a panel discussion, as founder of the Institute of Research on the Wonders of the Sea. His “institute” had started with preparaing a documentary which among other things saw Opbrouck arrange a concert by a full orchestra on a sand bank in the North Sea, which is above water for only an hour a day during low tide. In discussion with Louise Carver, research associate with TBA-21 Academy, they touched upon how storytelling and artistic expression play a role in shaping perceptions and fostering societal engagement needed to succeed with transforming the blue economy. 

The journey ahead 

Presenting his visions for the blue economy by 2030, Kestutis Sadauskas, Deputy Director General of DG MARE at the European Commission, assured the Symposium participants that the blue economy is on a growth trajectory, but questioned whether the growth is sustainable. He highlighted the value of cross-disciplinary approaches and the need for reliable data to manage the challenges ahead. His recipe for success is a strategic approach to the marine area and pooled and strategically aligned investments, ingredients that are already integrated in the framework of the Sustainable Blue Economy Partnership. Magda de Carli, Head of Unit and Deputy Director at the European Commission, DG Research and Innovation, also stressed that the smart and sustainable blue economy transformation depends on excellence in research and innovation. She praised that "through this Sustainable Blue Economy Partnership we have created a well-connected European research family” of which the European Commission is part of and can be counted on. As two main priorities for the Partnership, she mentioned the closing of the innovation divide in the EU and "going local", i.e. to engage local and regional governments, as the Partnership has started to do.  

Italian Minister of Universities and Research, Anna Maria Bernini, closed the Symposium looking forward as the Partnership is expanding to 29 countries and as "exciting prospects lie ahead with the second joint call for projects and other planned activities." The Minister also highlighted that "the green and digital solutions from the Sustainable Blue Economy Partnership are vital for technology transfer, competitiveness, and promoting the Union's autonomy and success." In closing, Minister Bernini recalled that "looking beyond our current challenges is essential." 

In the wake of the first Symposium, it is evident that the journey ahead is laden with both challenges and opportunities. Yet, with the anchor lifted and sails unfurled, Europe is ready to navigate the promising waters of the Sustainable Blue Economy, and the Partnership will do its part in boosting a transition towards a future where both ocean integrity and economy thrive. 

If you missed the event, or would like to re-experience parts of it, you can now watch the recorded sessions at your own convenience here. To revisit the Symposium programme, visit the dedicated event page here