The Ocean Economy: It’s Still Big and Growing!

In his previous blog post on the ocean economy, my colleague, Jeff Adkins, promised a second part to his blog post. If you knew him like I know him, you wouldn’t be holding your breath.

Graphic image of a man fishing from a boat, in the ocean
Jeff’s gone fishing…


So let’s put an end to your suspense, letting me pick up the baton.

The U.S. ocean and Great Lakes economy is a large, complex, and highly productive part of our nation’s economy. It’s six ocean-dependent sectors support our lives, lifestyle, and livelihoods. And it is growing!

In 2012, the ocean and Great Lakes economy employed almost 3 million persons, up 3.8 percent from 2011, paying more than $110 billion in wages—no small chunk of change! Even more impressively, GDP in the ocean economy grew by 10.5 percent in 2012, more than four times the national average of 2.5 percent.

Not convinced yet? The ocean economy employs more people than the telecommunications, crop production, and residential building construction sectors combined!

Employment comparison in U.S. total and ocean economic
Ocean economy employment compared to major U.S. economic sectors


Graphic icon for the offshore mineral extraction sector

Most striking is offshore mineral extraction, which was up 21 percent over 2011, but       five of the six ocean-dependent sectors grew faster than the national economy. The rate of growth for each sector varied, as did the factors that contributed to this growth.


Graph of gdp growth in the ocean economy in 2012
Growth Rates by Sector, Gross Domestic Product, 2011 – 2012

The huge increase in GDP associated with the offshore mineral extraction sector was driven by production increases in response to two years of extraordinarily high prices for crude petroleum (see the chart from the U.S. EIA). Employment in the offshore mineral extraction sector also grew significantly, up 8.6 percent over 2011.

USEIA Crude Oil Production
U.S. Crude Oil Production Statistics, U.S.Energy Information Administration (U.S.EIA 2015)

sectorIcons-07Ship and boat building was the second fastest growing sector in the U.S. ocean economy, with GDP increasing 7 percent over 2011 and employment increasing 4.5 percent. This growth represents a strong reversal of general decline since 2005.  The construction of ships is such a capital intensive endeavor, this sector tends to be concentrated in a relatively small number of places that are home to major shipyards. Coastal communities that house these shipyards are dependent on their economic productivity and the jobs they provide to the local workforce.

GDP isectorIcons-05n marine transportation, the third fastest growing sector in the ocean economy, grew almost as fast as ship and boat building, at a rate of 6.2 percent despite  the nearly flat growth in employment (0.6 percent). Overall, the sector employed about 422,000 persons and contributed $57.4 billion to the ocean economy GDP. Industries in marine transportation range from the wide array of activities associated with marine freight transportation to the manufacture of search and navigation equipment.

sectorIcons-02The tourism and recreation sector is the largest employer in the ocean economy, with 2 million employees in 2012 (71.3 percent of the ocean economy total). It was the least affected of all ocean economies by the recession of 2007 to 2009, with annual losses in employment, wages, and GDP only in 2009. In 2012, this sector produced $97 billion of GDP (28.3 percent of the ocean economy total), which represented an increase of 3.5 percent over 2011 [1].

The levsectorIcons-04el of activities in the marine construction sector can be volatile, driven by spending on and need for beach nourishment and dredging activities. in 2012, GDP in marine construction grew 2.7 percent, slightly higher than the national average of 2.5 percent. This represented a reversal of growth trends in the sector which, between 2005 and 2011, declined an average of 3.5 percent annually.

sectorIcons-03Now that we’ve talked about all the sectors that grew faster than the total economy, let’s talk about the only sector that grew slower that the total economy in terms of GDP—living resources. GDP in the living resources sector, which includes all ocean-related commercial fishing activities, grew at a rate of 0.4 percent. This growth represented a turn from the 0.2 percent decline in the previous year. Furthermore, it is a productive sector. About 120,000 people are responsible for all the seafood produced in the U.S.!

Changes in the ocean economy are driven by a myriad of external factors including general economic conditions, fuel prices, fishing pressures, regulations, government spending, and changes to ecosystems and environmental health.

The ocean and Great Lakes economy played an important role in our nation’s recovery from the recession of 2007—2009, with five of the six ocean-dependent sectors growing faster than the national average.

Some ocean-dependent activities, like tourism and recreation and living resources, rely on healthy and thriving marine ecosystems. Other activities have the potential to harm these valuable ecosystems and, thus, are regulated to promote the creation of win-wins like our nation experienced in 2012. The thriving ocean activities will require effective management of the ocean uses to strengthen the resilience of our economy, communities and ecosystems simultaneously.

[1] This sector includes only those tourism and recreation activities that occur right along the water’s edge, in the shore adjacent zip codes areas of coastal counties.



Tola Adeyemo

I am a geospatial analyst at NOAA's Office for Coastal Management in Charleston, SC . I work primarily on socioeconomic datasets, producing data, analyzing data, and doing some heavy duty quality assurance and control. Upon joining the center about 4 years ago and working on the ENOW (Economics: National Ocean Watch) dataset, I discovered my love for excel and all things spreadsheet related. I have a B. A. in political science from Loyola University Chicago, and an M.Sc. in Environmental Science from Southern Illinois University (go Salukis!).

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