boats on ocean shore

The expected impacts of climate change on the ocean economy


The ocean is critically important to our global economy. Collectively, it is estimated that ocean-based industries and activities contribute hundreds of millions of jobs and approximately US$2.5 trillion to the global economy each year, making it the world’s seventh-largest economy when compared with national gross domestic products (GDPs). In addition, the nonmarket services and benefits provided by the ocean are significant and may in fact far exceed the value added by market-based goods and services. Anthropogenic climate change, driven by the exponential increase in emissions of greenhouse gasses since the industrial revolution, will continue to impact the ocean through a variety of channels. The resulting changes to ocean processes and functioning have broad implications for our global economy that must be taken into account, both to inform adaptation efforts and motivate urgent mitigation strategies. In this study, we focused on sectors of the ocean economy that are most in need of adaptation to ensure they can continue to provide valued functions as the climate changes: capture fisheries, marine aquaculture, and marine and coastal tourism. 


Collaborating with experts across multiple disciplines from around the world, we reviewed the impact of climate change on the three key components of the ocean ecosystem economy—fisheries, marine aquaculture and coral reef tourism—and the opportunities for effective institutions and markets to reduce these impacts. Building on existing work, we developed three models to forecast the economic impacts of climate change and potential benefits of adaptation in each sector for every coastal country under diverse climate scenarios. 

Key findings

Our research gave rise to several key results:

  • Maintaining a robust ocean economy will depend on swift efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • For capture fisheries, we find that all countries would benefit from implementing climate-adaptive reforms and that many countries could maintain current profits and catches into the future with adaptation. 
  • For aquaculture, we show that production is under capacity in many countries and the negative effects of climate change on capture fisheries could be more than offset by developing and expanding sustainable mariculture. 
  • For ocean tourism, we find that all countries will be negatively impacted, and both local and global actions that reduce the magnitude of climate change effects would help lessen the economic impacts. 
  • Since climate change impacts differ by country and sector, possible solutions will be context-specific. By exploring the climate change impacts at the country level for fisheries, aquaculture, and reef tourism, countries will be able to assess what they stand to gain or lose due to climate change.

This study was commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a unique initiative by 14 world leaders who are building momentum for a sustainable ocean economy in which effective protection, sustainable production, and equitable prosperity go hand in hand. Our work was one of sixteen “blue papers” that offered a robust, scientific knowledge base to inform a new ocean report and the Ocean Panel’s action agenda.


This work was conducted in collaboration with over 15 experts from around the world (full list below) and supported by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and the World Resources Institute. 

Collaborators: Steven Gaines (emLab), Reniel Cabral (emLab), Christopher M. Free (emLab), Yimnang Golbuu (Palau International Coral Reef Center), Ragnar Arnason (University of Iceland), Willow Battista (Environmental Defense Fund), Darcy Bradley (emLab), William Cheung (University of British Columbia), Katharina Fabricius (Australian Institute of Marine Science), Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (University of Queensland), Marie Antonette Juinio-Meñez (University of the Philippines), Jorge García Molinos (Hokkaido University), Elena Ojea (University of Vigo), Erin O’Reilly (emLab), and Carol Turley (Plymouth Marine Laboratory)