What is the Ocean and Great Lakes Economy? Ten Utterly Fascinating Facts

You’ve heard the expression, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, jobs are the new weather. Read on to learn about the jobs (and dollars!) directly supported by the resources of the oceans and Great Lakes. Memorize one or two tidbits to impress your friends. Or maybe win a bar bet.

Cartoon image of a fisherman.

Value of Our Oceans and Great Lakes

In 2011, the U.S. ocean and Great Lakes economy employed 2.8 million people and produced $282 billion of goods and services (ENOW). What’s more, indicators like these don’t even begin to capture the full value of the ocean and Great Lakes. If you add in the value that doesn’t show up well in markets (nonmarket values), the total is much, much higher (watch a short video about values).

Map of United States.

Share of Ocean Economy in the Nation’s Total Economy

About 2 percent of U.S. employees work in the ocean economy. This seems small until you consider that our nation’s economy is diverse, with many “little parts.” To put this in perspective, the ocean economy employs more people than telecommunications, home construction, and crop production combined (explore the story map about ocean jobs).

Infographic of ENOW statistics.

The Ocean and Great Lakes Economy

The ocean economy includes economic activities that are directly dependent on the resources of the oceans and Great Lakes (click to enlarge the thumbnail). Activities that are indirectly related to ocean resources are not included, such as steel suppliers for shipbuilding companies and factories that consume oil and gas.

Six image clips of ocean scenes.

The Six Ocean Sectors

The ocean and Great Lakes economy includes six distinct sectors: Living Resources, Marine Construction, Marine Transportation, Offshore Mineral Resources, Ship and Boat Building, Tourism and Recreation (take “A Tour of Ocean and Great Lakes Economies” in a story map)

Infographic for 2010 employment.

The Largest Ocean Sector

Each of these six sectors makes its own unique contribution to the national economy. In 2011, the Offshore Minerals sector accounted for 37 percent of the total GDP in ocean economy. The Tourism and Recreation sector accounted for a little less GDP, but accounted for 70 percent of the ocean economy’s employment. The average wage in this sector is low, but it’s important because it provides a lot of entry level and part-time jobs for young workers and students. Most students prefer part-time employment because they also need to study (yeah, mom and dad–that’s what they’re doing). Explore the story map about the “Employer and Engine of the Ocean Economy”.

Image of fishing boats at a dock.

Self-employed Workers

Employment statistics tell only part of the “jobs” story. A lot of workers are self-employed. To get a more complete picture of the jobs created in the ocean sectors, you have to account for these self-employed workers, too. This is especially important in the Living Resources sector, where half of the total workers are self-employed, most of whom are commercial fishermen.

Image of speed boats.
Locations of the Ocean-dependent Activities

Many ocean-dependent activities do not take place IN the water, or even at the water edges–things like canning seafood and manufacturing navigation equipment. For some of the activities, such as in the Tourism and Recreation sector, only businesses in the shore-adjacent zip code areas are considered directly ocean-related (see industry crosswalk for more sector details) because this sector includes businesses like hotels and restaurants that aren’t always ocean-dependent.

Image of chickens.

What About the Chickens?

The economic statistics used to create ENOW account for the jobs, wages, and GDP directly associated with ocean-dependent economic activities, but not the values that are indirectly dependent on oceans. For example, some fish are processed as inputs to chicken feed. These chickens are indirectly dependent on the oceans, but their value is not included in ENOW. Some chickens (no matter what they eat) are produced far inland and shipped to international markets through coastal ports. ENOW counts the jobs, wages, and GDP associated with loading these chickens (and other cargo) onto ships but not the value of the chickens themselves. Other data sets must be consulted to understand the full economic value of the oceans (learn more about economic indicators).

Cartoon drawing of snow globe.

Dependency of Economic Activities on the Natural Environment

Some ocean-related activities are highly dependent on healthy ecosystems, especially in the Tourism and Recreation and Living Resources sectors. Other sectors, like Offshore Mineral Extraction, are regulated to minimize their impact on the ecosystems in which they’re located. To ensure sustainable growth, decision makers have to balance the demands of economic growth and environmental protection (learn more from a short econ lesson).

Map of United States.

Benefits of Ocean Economy to the Inland Area

Products and services provided by the ocean economy benefit the whole nation–seafood is consumed nationwide, inland products are shipped overseas by ports (click thumbnail to see an example), and people all over the nation visit the coast for recreation. Ocean activities also demand enormous products from inland areas and therefore support inland economy, such as wheat and meat for coastal restaurants, coal and steel for marine constructions, and nonperishable items for a new cruise.

Well, that’s enough for now–ten facts about the ocean and Great Lakes economy. Now go impress your coworkers or friends at cocktail parties with your incredible wisdom about the ocean and Great Lakes economy.

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