The Orbis Blog

How the Blue Economy Impacts the Timberland Investment Community

The blue economy plays an integral role in our lives, but many people and companies are unaware of the opportunities it presents. In this blog, we look at what the blue economy is and how it impacts the timberland investment community.

What is the Blue Economy?

Dr. Ross Andrew, Research Assistant Professor at West Virginia University School of Natural Resources, describes the blue economy as “any sector of the economy that is related to or uses ocean and coastal resources.” It includes traditional industries like fishing, shipping, transportation, recreation and tourism. The blue economy also encompasses newer types of leading-edge industries such as seabed exploration, biotechnology, aquaculture and renewable energy.

The blue economy is massive. There is over $370 billion represented in total contribution to the United States GDP every year just from blue economy sectors. This also includes about 2.5 million jobs, from lifeguards and fishing workers to ocean engineers and marine ecologists.

Given that it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the United States, it’s important for timberland investors and asset managers to pay attention.

For more, follow along with our Campfire Sessions series on this topic.

3 Current Trends in the Blue Economy

1. Increased Support of National Marine Sanctuaries

One trend that blue economy experts see is that more people are taking notice of national marine sanctuaries and how they positively impact the people around them. This includes the Biden administration, who asked to increase funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates almost $3 billion of funding to NOAA over five years.

“I do believe there’s an increasing acknowledgment or awareness of national marine sanctuaries and the value they bring to a place,” said Dr. Danielle Schwarzmann, Chief Economist at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

2. Greater Protection for Blue Spaces

On Earth Day 2022, President Biden signed an executive order that aims to protect 30 percent of federal lands and waters by 2030. The goal is to enhance “nature’s ability to support the health, wellbeing, and economic security of all Americans.”

Dr. Schwarzmann classifies herself as a natural resource economist. This means she looks at the value of the natural resources within the ocean and marine places, including the Great Lakes.

One of the topics she focuses on is ecosystem services. She evaluates the quality of ecosystem services, which are the benefits that people derive from the environment within the national marine sanctuaries.

“A lot of my time lately has been looking at the economic impacts of our rule-making. So, if we change regulations within a sanctuary, or if a new sanctuary is designated, I look at the economic impacts of those changes to the local communities and the national economy.”

Family Playing In Ocean3. More Blue Economy Jobs

The blue economy is slated to keep growing, and that includes job growth.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released their projections for job growth over the next decade across different occupation types and for jobs associated with the blue economy, like recreational workers, fishing workers, environmental scientists, and water transportation workers.

“All of those blue economy jobs are projected to grow by an average of 12 to 13 percent over the next decade,” said Dr. Andrew. “And if you look at all other occupations over that same time period, the average job growth is only about 8 percent.”

Addressing Equality in the Blue Economy

The Problem

Despite the rapid growth of the blue economy, many underserved communities don’t have the same opportunities in the space.

Clemson University has the Race, Ethnicity, Youth, and Social Equity (REYSE) Collaboratory, which gives its attention to understanding racially marginalized groups. It specifically gives attention to young people, like teenagers and young adults, and tries to examine how to position them so that they can recognize their own power and agency to engage in new opportunities and new spaces.

“We may show them access to career opportunities or leisure activities that are different from what they may traditionally be exposed to.”

Dr. Harrison Pinckney, Assistant Professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at Clemson University

“For a long time, there’s always been a false narrative that the outdoors is not a space for Black people,” said Dr. Harrison Pinckney, Assistant Professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism at Clemson University. “Through our work, we try to dispel that notion. We especially give attention to young people because what we recognize is that in those early years, around 12 to 25, a lot of youth are taking active ownership of their own identity, and they’re starting to allow their own identities to form through their active engagement.

“What we believe is that if we can be a part of that process, we can help these youth see themselves in a very different light. We may show them access to career opportunities or leisure activities that are different from what they may traditionally be exposed to.”

For his part, Dr. Pinckney spent time talking to and gaining the perspectives of members of the Black community who are users of the blue economy or public spaces in general. One thing became evident: for a lot of Black people, there was a strong attachment to the public waters from the standpoint of usage, especially in the South.

“Many Black Americans continue to see water as a way of life,” said Dr. Pinckney. “You know, fishing and swimming in public waters. But the one thing that we noticed with the disconnect was who’s in the positions of power.”

Dr. Pinckney sat down with his 85-year-old great uncle to talk about growing up in the 1930s and 40s and what water usage looked like then compared to today. Even though his great uncle was an avid fisherman, he didn’t know anyone that looked like him who was in any position of authority and could determine how waters would be protected and used.

The Solution

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently put together the convergence accelerator program to speed up use-inspired research with an interdisciplinary approach. That meant project teams had to talk to people in communities, understand what they might need, and come up with a solution.

But the goal was to be use-inspired. This meant projects funded by the convergence accelerated grant should build upon foundational research and make broad societal impacts.

The goal of this track is to create a smart, integrated, connected, and open ecosystem for ocean innovation, exploration, and sustainable utilization.

iCOAST is one of those projects. It stands for Inclusion through Convergence of Ocean and Social Technology. iCOAST creates tools and accessible resources that better align with the needs and desired experiences of underserved communities. The result is long-term, sustainable, and investible solutions that benefit society as a whole.

Dr. Robert Burns, Director of the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources at West Virginia University, is the project leader for iCOAST. He said, “Within two years, we want to make a tidal wave of impact on marginalized communities that are near national marine sanctuaries, and we can do this because the National Science Foundation will invest several millions of dollars into the process.”

Each year, NSF selects different tracks based on a specific research topic. The track iCOAST is working on is the networked blue economy, which touches on myriad issues involving social sciences and ocean sciences. The goal of this track is to create a smart, integrated, connected, and open ecosystem for ocean innovation, exploration, and sustainable utilization.

iCOAST focuses on three main products:

  1. A mobile app that makes finding and accessing recreational opportunities turnkey  
  2. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) camps that offer immersive experiences to create attachment and engagement in blue spaces
  3. AR gaming that’s focused on aquatic resources and content that educates and brings awareness to youth

The Impact

Dr. Pinckney is hoping his involvement with the iCOAST project will help young people consider careers and roles as activists – including how to engage in the decision-making and policy-making process where public waters are concerned.

“It’s so important for us to get down to that level of understanding, even on an individual basis, what it is that these communities are really needing and ways that we can best serve them, to help them overcome barriers,” Dr. Pinckney said. “It becomes much more of a conversational, long-tailed relationship rather than a prescriptive process. I think we’ve seen over and over that those prescriptive processes just don’t work for communities, so I think it’s important to look forward and touch on this more.”

How the Blue Economy Ties Into the Green Economy

The Connection

Some people might not see the connection between the timberland industry and the blue economy. Orbis, Inc., one of the partners of the iCOAST project, sees it differently.

“We have been in the timberland investment community for over 22 years,” said Clarence Neese, Vice President and Co-Founder of Orbis. “We manage over 14 million acres of public recreation, and so we really are experts in the management of recreation and the green economy, which I think really bleeds right into recreational access in the blue economy. So, that’s the main reason why we’re involved with iCOAST.”

“Both the green and blue spaces have recreation available to the public, and so the challenges are similar,” said Neese. “The number one challenge we see people focusing on is education. How do we educate the public so they know recreation’s out there and they can participate?”

While the public may better understand the green economy, the similarities between green and blue economies mean the same approaches can work for both.

Neese said, “I think there is a lot of opportunity for growth, but also for pivoting of existing resources that are already being deployed and used in the green economy and pivoting them slightly to the blue economy.”


The Rise of ESG Initiatives

Environmental Social Governance (ESG) is a term that’s popular in the timberland investment community. It’s used to measure an investment’s sustainability, ethical impact, and risk over opportunity.

“Our industry always talks about natural capital and ESG, and we have the ‘E’ part of the equation,” Neese continued. “We have the trees and carbon. But what we’re really missing is the ‘S’ part, the social impact, and this is the kind of project that’s going to provide true social impact for investors.”

– Clarence Neese, Vice President and Co-Founder of Orbis

“If we look at trends in the private market right now, there is a movement toward how can companies become more thoughtful about addressing societal issues, and I think a lot of that we see in the use now of ESG scores,” said Dr. Erienne Olesh, Executive Director of Student and Faculty Innovation at West Virginia University. “These environmental, social, and governance scores are things that investors are putting a lot of weight on.”

3 Key Takeaways

1. Timberland Investors Can Have a Social Impact

As the blue economy continues to grow, so do the opportunities for fixing problems that come out of the blue space. As such, timberland investors and landowners can use their experience with ESG to help create sustainable opportunities for underserved communities to access the green spaces they work within.

“The iCOAST project aims to generate both business and social returns on the investment, and that’s really important,” said Neese. “When you step back and look at what we’re doing in the blue economy, you can quickly see that the software development, modeling, STEM camps, education, and outreach are going to yield social and environmental benefits. But they are also going to be sustainable, and so when I look at the timberland investment community and what we are doing, we need to apply this same thing that we’re doing in the blue economy to the green economy.

“Our industry always talks about natural capital and ESG, and we have the ‘E’ part of the equation,” Neese continued. “We have the trees and carbon. But what we’re really missing is the ‘S’ part, the social impact, and this is the kind of project that’s going to provide true social impact for investors.”

2. There’s a Need to Help Underserved People Find Their Voice

“More emphasis needs to be placed on centering the voices of the people that we are attempting to tap into,” said Dr. Pinckney.

On Clemson’s campus, Dr. Pinckney worked with high school students on issues of justice and equity. They talked about the role of activism and advocacy.

“I suggested that activism is those people who are on the receiving end of the inequities,” said Dr. Pinckney.

Activists use their voices to speak up and find ways to be heard, bring ideas to the table, and then advocate. Even though the people who want to help may not necessarily be a member of the target community, they can listen and help in those efforts to amplify the underserved voices.

3. Awareness in the Blue Space is Necessary

One of the most effective ways timberland investors can help those underrepresented in the blue economy is to raise awareness. That can happen by hiring members of underserved communities or providing outreach.

“No matter what industry you’re in, if you aren’t sure how to recruit a more diverse workforce or if you’re just looking for more clients or people to come to your recreational space, you need to make them aware,” said Dr. Andrew.

His team works with different underserved groups, and one of them is in South Central Los Angeles. Some kids are a mile or two away from the ocean and have very little awareness of it. So, Dr. Andrew’s team started to put some of the educational tools that iCOAST developed into those kids’ hands, and they started to see that they could exist in the blue space. 

“That’s a really good first step, no matter what industry you’re in,” said Dr. Andrew. “It’s making sure that the awareness, the advertising, the outreach you’re doing is effective and getting into the right sort of eyes and ears.”


The blue economy plays an integral role in everyone’s lives because it brings blue spaces and jobs to communities. With timberland investors helping to raise awareness and provide resources, the blue economy can become accessible to all people groups.

iCOAST is actively helping underserved communities find their place in the blue space. Learn more about this initiative and how it works.

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