The San Diego region is no stranger to innovation. With our growing bio-tech, high-tech and defense sectors, along with our port, airport and border commerce, our region is perfectly positioned to be one of the great economies of the Pacific Rim.

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One of our lesser-known assets is our “blue economy” – a fast-growing cluster of maritime-related companies and organizations representing 14 sectors including fish farming, desalination & clean water technology, shipbuilding, biomedicine, defense, marine recreation and ocean science. As Michael Jones from The Maritime Alliance says, “If it is wet, then we consider it part of the blue economy.”

In fact, San Diego’s blue economy was recognized in the 2012 San Diego Maritime Industry Report as an economic powerhouse with more than 1,400 companies producing more than $14 billion of direct sales and a workforce of nearly 46,000 employees across San Diego County. These are good-paying, blue collar and blue-tech jobs that are spread across my district in south San Diego County (which includes the entire Unified Port of San Diego) and in North and East County. The report projects that the 14 sectors will experience growth rates ranging from 6 to 20 percent per year through 2020, and positively impact all areas of our region and all socio-economic populations.

In March, I had the chance to tour two facilities in Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon that represent well the opportunity and challenge we have as a region to focus on and grow the blue economy. One is Southern California’s premier marine fish hatchery operated by Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute. It is restoring the white seabass population off Southern California’s coast using the latest in science and technology and fishery management techniques. This hatchery is capable of producing more than 350,000 juvenile white seabass annually, and could provide the local stock for an expanded fish farming industry. Using currently available open ocean cage technology, this first aquaculture effort alone could farm 150,000 metric tons of white seabass annually off the coast of San Diego using less than one square mile of ocean surface area. That one square mile could produce $900 million annually (worth $3.6 billion on the dining table), create 6,000 seafood-related jobs and lead us toward seafood independence. And there are other local indigenous species that offer similar economic growth.

The United States is the world’s third largest consumer of seafood, but imports more than 80 percent of its supply – some from methods that may not meet U.S. standards.  Carlsbad Aquafarm, which is co-located near the marine fish hatchery, is an example of sustainable aquaculture that we should be promoting more.

They benefit from the depth and consistent movement of water in the lagoon made possible by the current energy plant, which is the site of a future desalination plant in Carlsbad. The desalination plant will provide up to 50 million gallons of safe, reliable and drought-proof drinking water per day.

Hydranautics – a company based in Oceanside is one of three (a second is also based in San Diego) world-leading manufacturers of membrane technology for desalination and wastewater treatment, including indirect potable reuse and industrial water reuse. It is no wonder Mark Cafferty, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp, recently said at a commercial real estate forum, “When China needs water, they come to San Diego.” These organizations need our support to achieve their potential and add the blue jobs we want in this region.

The convergence of our resources and our location at the “pivot point” for the Pacific and global constraints make it possible, even mandatory, for us to further develop the blue economy ecosystem here.  We can add thousands of new blue jobs as we address opportunities and challenges in our region and the world.

We need more reliable sources of fresh water. We need aquaculture to feed growing populations in the U.S. and abroad as we reduce our seafood import dependence. We need to certify returning military veterans with skills in wastewater treatment, desalination, maritime transportation and other areas to plug them directly into jobs. We need to support growth in sectors including maritime communications, maritime robotics, ocean energy (including wind energy) and ocean observation systems and research.  We need to look at improved methods of transportation including a “marine highway” to connect our port to Long Beach, Los Angeles and the Bay Area as well as ports in Baja California. We need to preserve our marine protected areas so future generations have access to abundant and diverse sea life.  And finally, we need to ensure the military has adequate space to maneuver around all of these competing uses.

I highlighted this blue economy at my State of the County address in February. Now, I am calling on the region and asking for all hands on deck to initiate a marine spatial planning process that will assist in identifying appropriate uses of our ocean resources.

The blue economy gives us one of the most unique regional economies in the world and can be a catalyst for new jobs. San Diego can be a national leader in marine spatial planning and I will be actively supporting its development.      

Cox’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

Greg Cox

Greg Cox serves on the Board of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and is a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors representing...

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