Renewable Matter # 1 / Next Europe

Portugal Returns to Sea

by Ilaria Nardello

The Portuguese national marine jurisdiction is one of the largest in Europe, 18 times the size of the country’s emerged land. However, in the past thirty years, possibly since it joined the European Union and became distracted by the opportunities of our common agricultural policies, the country has overlooked their enormous and deeply rooted maritime heritage. Only recently, renewed interest in their blue assets has urgently surfaced. 

In the wake of its biggest modern economic crisis, which brought the country’s GDP down from an all time high of USD 252 billion, in 2008, to USD 212.5 billion, in 2012, Portugal’s government just revised its plans and renewed its commitment for a long-due “return to the sea”. Driven by the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008), which aims to protect the marine environment as the resource base upon which marine-related economic and social activities depend; and guided by the innovation and job creation prospects of the recent EU Blue-Growth Strategy; the Portuguese National Ocean Strategy (NOS), 2013-2020, is a country’s passionate and exemplary call to re-direct the exploitation of their marine resources towards the sustainable creation of high value-added products. 

As related by Capitain João Fonseca Ribeiro, Director General for Maritime Policy, the Portuguese marine sector only accounts for 2.7-2.8% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. Traditional activities such as fisheries – the tenth economic sector in Portugal, and ship-building are the main pillars there. The strategy should convince national and foreign stakeholders to invest in the innovation of the traditional blue-economy sectors as well as in the development of novel activities. The expectation is to almost double the contribution of the direct marine sector activities and reach 5% of GDP, by 2020. 

Aquaculture is a most promising industry in Portugal. With an ever-increasing global demand for food and proteins, this sector has already grown by 35% from the production level of 2011 and is projected to sustain a production of 40 kilotons/year, in the near future. High potential for return on investments is established for tourism, and anticipated for the more innovative sectors, such as marine biotechnology R&D, marine mineral extraction and marine renewable energy. When including secondary and induced activities, the blue economy could rapidly grow to cover a third of Portugal’s wealth. 

The likelihood of a positive outcome is strengthened by a recent proposal to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (Clcs) for the extension of Portugal’s continental shelf. If approved, the Portuguese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) will increase to about 2.1 million km2 and extend to a marine area 40 times the size of Portugal – as large as the whole European land territory, and corresponding to 4% of the Atlantic Ocean surface. With this variable scale of operations, NOS governance will adopt a rather flexible approach, with a notion that a bigger scale entails broader responsibilities. 

The main challenge for the realization of the NOS, as well as the whole European Blue-Growth agenda, is the development of the knowledge and technology bases, which will be required to enable the extraction of the envisaged potential of the marine. In this long-term perspective, it is of paramount importance that a collaborative spirit is adopted in the creation and application of that knowledge; starting with territorial cooperation programs within the marine region of competence and, beyond, at the pan-European level; and, finally, realizing the common interests of that territorial continuum determined by the Atlantic Ocean. Only a shared detailed comprehension of the value of the oceans will allow a sensible response to the development opportunities arising from the deep.