February 21, 2024
Out of the Blue

Most people use the terms ocean economy and blue economy interchangeably, but for others, the term "blue economy" puts the focus on sustainability.

Photo: iStock

Out of the Blue
USF professor Steve Murawski says the new blue economy is focused on the sustainable use of the ocean and is driven by data.

Photo: USF

The Blue Economy

Out of the Blue

From natural resources to emerging tech, Florida's ocean-driven economy runs deep.

Mike Vogel | 5/31/2023

Steve Murawski, a University of South Florida professor, offers an illuminating data point: The economic value of commercial and recreational fishing in Florida is greater than aerospace, citrus and ranching combined. Researcher Charles Colgan, working for the non-profit Florida Ocean Alliance, pegs the direct economic contribution of ocean resources and work in Florida — from a mai tai at a beachside hotel to a 7,000-passenger cruise ship — at $37 billion. Florida’s ocean economy, says Murawski, “really is the economic driver of the state.”

Marine Sectors …

Tourism and Recreation

The tourism and recreation sector accounts for the lion’s share of Florida’s ocean economy. “Tourism and recreation really stand out in Florida,” says Charles Colgan, director of research at the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif.. The sector has nearly five times the number of businesses as the rest of the Florida ocean economy combined and nearly four times the number of employees. And that understates a major tourism driver. The cruise industry is categorized under transportation, a separate sector.

Marine-Related Construction

Florida doesn’t register much marine-related construction — odd given how much work occurs in seawalls, backyard docks, marinas and dredging. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in the last five years,” says Steve Ryder, president of the Florida Marine Contractors Association and senior project development manager for Bellingham Marine in Jacksonville. Colgan says Florida’s relatively low numbers are probably an artifact of how construction is measured. The data category defines the work as heavy construction that doesn’t fall under other classifications — that knocks out bridge work, for example. Seawalls, meanwhile, are lumped under landscaping, and researchers don’t have a good way of teasing out from the data what’s a seawall and what’s a rock garden in Orlando.


The cruise industry is the only core ocean economy industry in which Florida-based companies dominate. According to a 2021 research paper in Science Advances on the 100 largest transnational ocean-related companies, the 10 largest in the cruise industry account for 93% of cruise revenue. Florida is the base for three of them: Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.

Minerals and Mining

Globally, the offshore oil and gas industry — in which Florida barely registers — accounts for 45% of revenue in the ocean economy. Though Florida has a few businesses that support gulf oil and gas extraction, the sector is the smallest of Florida’s ocean economy, employing around 700 people in limestone, sand and gravel collecting and 800 in oil and gas.

Ocean Economy vs. Blue Economy

Most people use the terms interchangeably, but for others the term “blue economy” (like “green economy”) puts the focus on sustainability. It also can encompass economic activity that’s ocean-related but officially accounted for elsewhere in government statistics.

The New Blue Economy

NOAA defines the new blue economy as ocean-related tech involving data collection and use, research and monitoring. USF oceanographer Steve Murawski, one of the world’s leading experts in fisheries, says the concept is focused on the sustainable use of the ocean and is driven by data. “It really is in its infancy,” he says. The New Blue Economy would cover mapping undersea topography, which allows land-use planners to plan for resiliency, for insurers to accurately weigh the risk of covering one property versus another, for planners to mandate proper seawall heights, for utilities to know where to place futuristic undersea generators of power from tide and currents. The parallel Murawski draws: Government collects data on weather. Private companies then find ways to make the information accessible and monetize it for the public, farmers and commodities traders, among others.

Florida is spending $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for statewide coastal mapping. It’s hoped that compiling the coastal depth measurements will allow better planning for infrastructure, habitat management and understanding and responding to sea-level rise. “We think there’s a whole emerging economy. The new blue economy based on these kinds of data are going to be really important to move forward as a state,” Murawski says. “There’s a major business opportunity there.”

Florida’s Ocean Economy

Colgan researched Florida’s ocean economy for the Florida Ocean Alliance. The alliance is a Fort Lauderdale-based non-profit representing academia, the private sector and non-profit research groups focused on conservation, education and economic development.

Research Clusters

Ocean research occurs at UF, FSU and throughout the state, but the major clusters are in Jacksonville, Southeast Florida and the Tampa Bay region.

  • Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg, with 1,900 employees, is “the largest cluster in Florida” and one of the largest in the southeast U.S., Murawski says. It is home to:
  • USF College of Marine Science
  • Florida Institute of Oceanography
  • Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation
  • Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
  • Maritime and Defense Technology Hub
  • USF Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences
  • Arms of NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey and others
  • In Southeast Florida, “We have a lot going on,” says Pierre-Philippe Beaujean, a professor in Florida Atlantic University’s ocean and mechanical engineering department, as he gives a tour of projects in materials, robotics, energy development and unmanned vehicles at SeaTech, FAU’s center in Dania Beach. The Navy has a research center on the same site, and Nova Southeastern’s Guy Harvey Oceanographic Center is nearby. South Florida also has major ocean research at Florida International University, the University of Miami and other entities.

Tags: Transportation, Travel & Tourism, Feature

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