PROVIDENCE – Former R.I. governor and current U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo on Wednesday said the Biden administration sees the ocean, or blue, economy as a “pathway [and] not a roadblock to enabling long-term economic development and growth.
“It’s more important than ever that we come together to preserve and nourish our coasts and our oceans,” she said during a virtual keynote address at “Discover Global Markets,” an annual event running from Sept. 20-22 at the Omni Providence Hotel. “It is time for a new blue economy.”
Raimondo did not direct any of her comments toward Rhode Island’s efforts to develop its own blue economy, instead focusing her remarks on the national conversation around sustainability and conservation, while championing federal economic-development programs aimed at shoring up an industry with universal reach.
“It is impossible for most Americans to go a single day without using something that has come through our oceans and coasts,” she said.
Launched in 2014, this year’s event was hosted by the International Trade Administration and was billed as a one-stop brain trust for U.S. exporters and maritime-related companies competing in the global marketplace.
The three-day conference allowed registrants to pre-schedule meetings with international delegates, foreign buyers, distributors, representatives, government officials, and “key decision-makers,” according to the brochure, while gaining market insights from a cross section of industry experts, many of whom are based at U.S. embassies across the globe.
There were also “matchmaking meetings” with potential buyers and distributors from more than 20 international markets, industry panel discussions and networking events.
The theme for this year’s gathering centered around the “blue economy,” a broad umbrella term that includes industries such as marine transportation, offshore renewable energy, commercial fishing and tourism, among others.
Wednesday’s agenda featured a “fireside chat” between Richard Spinrad, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Marisa Lago.
Spinrad told attendees that the blue economy that comes to mind often does not encompass the totality of the industry, which has shifted in recent years with more of a focus on data collection for “predictive tools” and the burgeoning renewable energy sector that is partnering with government agencies to combat climate change.
In short, the blue economy is a vital part of the green economy.
These companies, both locally and internationally, require accurate data to plan operations, said Spinrad, taking advantage of the knowledge-based economy that can help fuel the blue economy ecosystem.
“Everyone [involved in the marine sector] can benefit from this knowledge-based economy,” he said, adding that the NOAA is “looking at that brave new world of commercial data as part of our [growing] portfolio.”
According to estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s blue economy will double in size by 2030, reaching $3 trillion. Overall, this sector contributed approximately $361 billion of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2020, according to the most current results of the annual Marine Economy Satellite Account maintained by NOAA and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Lago noted the connection between this vital economic sector and the location of the Discover Global Markets events. “Maritime industries are central to this state’s prosperity,” she said.
As marine-based markets continue to globalize, Lago said she sees an opportunity to provide industries with new revenue streams while also utilizing data collection for government agencies and nonprofits “so that communities are better prepared” for things like extreme weather events.
“We know that the free flow of information and data is the lifeblood of business,” she said, decrying the “balkanization” of information that can take place if governments across the globe fail to cooperate on supply-chain management, information sharing and climate change initiatives.
But getting the federal funds to trickle down to local organizations is easier said than done. The University of Rhode Island Research Foundation was a finalist but failed to receive significant funding from the competitive Build Back Better Regional Challenge overseen by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, part of the American Rescue Plan that recently issued $1 billion in grants to qualifying organizations to boost economic recovery.
The URI proposal sought to develop Narragansett Bay into a “smart bay” where undersea and maritime technologies can be invented, prototyped and tested; a “blue innovation technology center;” improved aquaculture operations and increased job training. The university has said it remains committed to being a regional hub for the developing industry.
And Gov. Daniel J. McKee, who also spoke on Wednesday at the conference, has proposed investing $70 million in the blue economy, including $30 million in bioscience investments; $60 million to improve infrastructure at the Port of Davisville;$35 million for the wind turbine staging area at the South Quay Marine Terminal; $25 million to create an electric heat pump incentive program; and $23 million to expand the network of electric vehicle charging stations.
Holding this year’s conference in Rhode Island was no accident, said ITA Acting Director of Public Affairs John Ewald. He said the state is at the forefront of blue-economy activity both in the commercial and governmental policy sphere.
A report by the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant College Program at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, titled “The Value of Rhode Island’s Blue Economy,” found that between 6% and 9% of Rhode Island workers, about 45,000 people, work within the ocean economy, leading to a direct economic impact of $5 billion.
(Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may reach him at Allen@PBN.com.)
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