When one thinks of developing the so-called Blue Economy in the Caribbean region, two sectors naturally come to mind for these island jurisdictions: the synergies of the travel and tourism sector, and the importance of maritime transportation for these local economies.
However, beyond these two important areas, there is a wealth of opportunities in other emerging areas of the Blue Economy, which include businesses to develop the use of Sargassum, now inundating many beaches of Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean; jumpstarting aquaculture and the local fishing industry, which has been languishing for years; developing off-shore wind farms to increase the use of alternative energies; developing more inter-island ferries; managing marine pollution and marine debris; improving coastal resilience in the wake of climate change; and small boat/yacht maintenance, among others.
Managing Sargassum has been a hot topic this summer due to the proliferation of the algae in the region. Yet many people may not realize that Algas Organics, a Sargassum recycling business in Saint Lucia, has been in operation since 2014 and has become a successful company. Meanwhile, a group of students from Ana G. Méndez University, Carolina Campus, recently won the 2021 Enactus Puerto Rico contest for their project that turns Sargassum into a biofertilizer.
Aquaculture is also being developed in Puerto Rico and the USVI, for instance, for raising tilapia in ponds, but on a small scale. Opportunities are available for the growing seafood market, not just in the U.S. mainland, but around the world, for such products as the Caribbean or rock lobster, queen conch and sea urchins.
These business opportunities were among the main topics of discussion during a three-day summit held by Bluetide Puerto Rico to help develop the Blue Economy on the island and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). Puerto Rico and the USVI have a unique opportunity to lead eco-responsible business innovations in the international market, as well as export services, technology, products and knowledge in Blue Economy solutions that could translate into $82 million annually for the island, according to Bluetide.
The World Bank defines the Blue Economy as the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem.”
The most recognized industries of the Blue Economy are local or recreational fishing, transportation and shipping, hotels, recreation and tourism, construction and boat mechanics, seawater desalination and insurance. According to National Ocean Watch statistics, ocean industries represent about 7 percent of Puerto Rico’s total employment.
“It’s important to create a functional synergy among all the industries that belong to the Blue Economy so that by complementing each other, they can develop effectively,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. “In the same way, we must work together with the USVI, with whom we share many development qualities, including the same sea and the same ocean. If we focus on the export of these goods and services, we would be actively inserting the Caribbean region in the global market projection of $12.4 trillion by 2030,” he added.
Initiatives in Puerto Rico and the USVI
As an example of a public-private partnership agreement, the governor mentioned the deal reached between the Ports Authority and Hall of Fame baseball star Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, whose company Isla Borinquen LLC will take over the development and operation of the deteriorated Pier 15 at the Isla Grande Airport in San Juan. As part of the agreement, Isla Borinquen will build a dry-dock facility that will attract vessels and mega yachts. Economic Development Secretary Manuel Cidre said the company will invest $12 million to build the dry dock and various other structures.
Pierluisi also spoke about plans to develop the Marine Business, Research and Innovation Center, known as M-BRIC, which is a 45,000-square-foot building that seeks to become the first Oceanographic Institute in the Caribbean and will be located in Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba.
Juan Bauzá, representative for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA), explained that “EDA awarded a $16 million grant to the Local Roosevelt Roads Redevelopment Authority for M-BRIC’s design and construction, to be complemented with investment from the central government, hoping that it will generate at — its maximum capacity — more than 29,000 jobs.” Once the contract is awarded through a bidding process, it should take 36 to 48 months to build.
For his part, USVI Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. outlined the U.S. sister territory’s efforts in the Blue Economy. “In the USVI, we have traditionally governed and operated with our back to the water. However, we have an opportunity now, as we work to diversify our economy, to take full advantage of what our marine ecosystem has to offer,” he said.
Bryan pointed to the increase in vessels registered in the USVI during the coronavirus pandemic as one indicator of the tremendous economic potential that exists in the marine industry and noted recent investments, including the development of an agribusiness aquaponics center on St. Croix as examples of his administration laying the groundwork for the Blue Economy.
He also noted a number of capital improvement projects to support the U.S. territory’s fisheries and recreational boating sectors, including improvements to the fishing dock in Hull Bay on St. Thomas, and improvements to the Ann Abramson, Kings Alley and Gallows Bay piers on St. Croix.
“Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have a unique opportunity to lead eco-responsible business innovations in the international market, export services, technology, products and knowledge in Blue Economy Solutions for the world… When you live on an island, everything depends on the health, maturity, strength and resilience of the Blue Economy, from importing goods to basic food security,” Bauzá said.
“The sea is a territorial extension capable of offering us food, energy and economic development,” according to Guifre Tort, interim executive director of Bluetide. “We want to help companies understand that the ocean is more than a geographical edge and can be a great business opportunity for them.” Having received $9 million from the EDA to assist in the development of the Blue Economy in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, Bluetide is focused on expanding the region’s maritime opportunities, he said.
Acceleration Initiatives for the U.S. Territories
Earlier this year, Bluetide Puerto Rico launched a marine innovation program called, “Blue my Mind,” with more than $400,000 to be distributed for promoting sustainable development projects tied to the ocean.
“Blue my Mind” seeks to identify and support innovative initiatives with projects tied to the ocean that help in the creation and development of new industries related to the sea, according to organizers. The chosen initiatives will be provided with logistics, materials and support to promote concepts, prototypes and pilot projects.
“We should not see our coasts as a border where Puerto Rico ends. We have to learn to see the sea as an extension of our island towards broader borders that can give us enormous economic development,” Tort said.
Blue Economy innovation spans through a broad spectrum of industries and technologies, large and small, which can promote sustainable ocean activities that create a sustainable economy.
Among the projects that Bluetide hopes to continue developing include:
• Mariculture and aquaculture (seawater and freshwater farming)
• Molecular Marine Biology
• Marine bioprospecting
• Fish aggregation devices (used to attract fish)
• Management of oceanic space
• Blue Technology
Sustainable development is particularly important for the region. The costs of inaction in the two dozen island nations and territories of the Caribbean, with its 40 million people, make the region particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, according to Bluetide. Studies project losses of $22 billion by 2050 - or 10 percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product, analyzing average damage from hurricanes, tourism losses and infrastructure damage due to sea level rises.