Lots of industries under what’s being called the “blue economy” umbrella aren’t new. But they’re banding together with new technologies to confront some major hurdles to the work they want to do in the oceans.

The phrase encompasses ancient industries like maritime travel, defense, fishing, boat-building, shipping and cartography. But it also includes innovative “blue tech” endeavors like underwater robots, submarines, aquaculture, wind energy and desalination.

Their combined footprint in San Diego is big. More than 1,400 companies in the blue economy generate more than $14 billion in sales, according to a 2012 report produced by the San Diego Workforce Partnership, the Regional Economic Development Corporation and the Maritime Alliance, an interest group organized in 2007 to promote the blue economy.

But despite the sector’s size, and the importance of San Diego’s waterfront perch to its culture and bottom line, little thoughtful planning has been done to facilitate the future growth of the industries in the blue economy, experts say.

In the 15th century, maritime travel happened under a banner of “mare liberum,” or “freedom of the seas,” said Kathryn Mengerink, a lecturer at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

But then, the ocean and its inherent treasures of food and minerals and energy seemed limitless.

“While we’ve been traveling by ship for millennia, you weren’t utilizing space in the ocean, you were traveling through it,” she said. “The idea of overexploiting or completely wiping out something wasn’t a possibility. … We need some way for being more thoughtful.”

The more interests aspiring to use space in the ocean, the louder the call for planning becomes. Among the issues that could stymie growth of these industries in San Diego, the need for “marine spatial planning” ranks high. Companies and researchers worry that tourism and recreation will overtake their access to the water. But more than that, they call on the region to apply the lessons of land-use planning to its adjacent waters – balancing economic, ecological, social and military bottom lines.

“It’s not like it’s a free-for-all or the Wild West,” Mengerink said. “But at this point in time, the way we manage the ocean is very much on a sector-by-sector, issue-by-issue basis.”

At the same time, those hoping to foster economic boons in nearby waters say the planning should be done with an eye toward enabling new companies. Advocates for aquaculture and desalination, though they agree on the necessity of planning, fret that while Americans figure out how to divvy up their ocean spaces, companies will gravitate to other countries.

“We’ve innovated here, but we’re not using it here,” said Don Kent, president of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institution.

‘Alphabet Soup’ of Agencies

Consider a sampling of the agencies you might encounter trying to start a company that needs to access the ocean:

The Regional Water Quality Control Board, the San Diego Port Authority, the California Coastal Commission, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Any time you start talking about doing anything along the coastline … there’s a whole alphabet soup of different state and federal and even international agencies with jurisdiction,” said Greg Cox, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Generally, state agencies like the Coastal Commission and Fish and Wildlife have jurisdiction up to three miles from shore. Beyond that, it’s federal waters, though there are overlaps in both places.

“Marine spatial planning” is a concept that is still on the horizon in San Diego. The ultimate feat would be partly to get all of those agencies – and any tribes with vested authority over local waters – into one conversation. But it’s also to map things like currents, habitats, seafloor topography and desired travel routes. The planners’ job would be to minimize potential conflict – finding sites for wind farms away from fishermen, for example – and ensuring particular species and natural resources are protected.

“In a perfect world, we’d have a perfect understanding of where things are in the ocean,” Mengerink said.

Massachusetts is among national leaders for undertaking marine spatial planning efforts, Mengerink said. The state took to heart a 2010 call from President Barack Obama to undergo marine spatial planning efforts.

If the San Diego region wanted to pick up such a planning effort, it’d need to negotiate with the military, the state, American Indian tribes and industry.

Right now, it’s the sector-by-sector status quo. But there could be consequences.

“We can march forward in time and have the no-land-use-planning approach,” Mengerink said. “Hopefully we won’t end up with the liquor store next to the elementary school or whatever the equivalent is in the ocean.”

‘A Very Hidden Sector’

Maritime innovation is right under our noses, but the region is often slow to implement local discoveries. Investment in local training programs would help the sector grow deeper roots here.

Rick Timms runs Seabotix, a pioneer in remotely operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs. The machines can carry cameras, lights, sonar and can pull and examine things deep in the oceans that military or companies might otherwise have to send a diver down to check out, or might never be able to examine or retrieve.

You might never realize that Seabotix’s shop is between Corvette Diner and the new Stone Brewing location in Point Loma. Its inconspicuousness is a bit of a metaphor for the whole blue economy – especially companies making advances in negotiating hostile oceanic environments.

“It’s been really a very hidden sector in San Diego for a long time,” Timms said. But the company of 60 employees did $15 million in sales in the year ending in June 2012. Timms said he hopes one of the local universities will grow a curriculum in maritime engineering.

These days, for all of the obvious connections to the water – the dozens of miles of coastline, the presence of the U.S. Navy and the dominant Scripps Institution of Oceanography – the region is still hesitant to adopt locally developed technologies.

San Diego boasts leading researchers in aquaculture, desalination and other globally sought-after technologies. Kent’s gospel is pushing for more aquaculture, fish farms, to lower the country’s dependence on importing seafood.

But it costs more and currently takes four times as long to get permits, and costs millions of dollars, stateside compared with traveling a short distance to set up in Mexico, Kent said.

Research is often funded by U.S. federal grants, he said, “but the folks who are actually going to take advantage of it are all down in Mexico, they’re actually Americans.”

Some of that regulation may help keep the ecosystem balanced. Mengerink cautioned that on many of the ocean-harnessing technologies, the cumulative impacts need to be studied, not just the pollution impacts of one fish farm.

Cox said planning and helping the blue economy confront its issues is the “next big thing.” He pledged to push the issue forward.

“We’ve always had a very close association with the ocean,” Cox said. “It’s kind of gone by the wayside. This is an opportunity to go back to the future.”

This is part of our Quest to find out more about the innovation economy in San Diego. Here’s a good overview of what we wanted to find out, and check out these highlights from the series.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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