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Ocean Economy

Diving Deeper: Episode 61


An Ocean of Commerce

From exports to imports, production jobs, and tourism, the ocean dollar stretches from the coast all the way to the heartland.


HOST: You may not realize it, but wherever you live in the U.S., you benefit from our ocean economy. From exports to imports, production jobs, and tourism, the ocean dollar stretches from the coast all the way to the heartland. Joining us today on Diving Deeper to explore our ocean economy is Jeff Adkins, an economist with NOAA.

Hi Jeff, welcome to our show!

JEFF ADKINS: Hi, thanks for having me.

HOST: Jeff, what do we mean when we say the “ocean economy”?

JEFF ADKINS: Well, when I talk about the ocean economy, I’m speaking specifically about a dataset that’s produced by NOAA in cooperation with the Labor Department and with the Bureau of Economic Analysis. It’s called Economics National Ocean Watch and it has time series data for six economic sectors that depend on the resources of the oceans and Great Lakes. And when I say depend on, it’s a couple of meanings—one is more directly dependent through use of the resource, things like offshore oil and gas and commercial fishing or it depends on it because it needs to happen in close proximity to the ocean—things like tourism and marine transportation.

HOST: Jeff, what makes up our ocean economy?

JEFF ADKINS: Well, I’ve already listed some of those sectors, the offshore mineral production, which is primarily oil and gas in most parts of the country. Commercial fishing and fish processing and seafood marketing is another sector, coastal tourism and recreation, and marine transportation, I think I’ve mentioned all of those. There’s two others that I haven’t mentioned—ship and boat building which also includes ship and boat repair services and then marine construction which is primarily things like dredging and sand mining and other heavy construction in the nearshore zone.

HOST: How are the inland areas of the U.S. connected to our ocean economy?

JEFF ADKINS: Well, to begin with the entire economy is really interconnected, I’ve used the analogy that it’s like a big spider’s web and if you touch any part of it the whole thing moves. Looking specifically at the ocean economy you see things like agriculture in the heartland and manufacturing all across the country and retail trade that are very dependent on our coastal ports. Restaurants across the country serve seafood that have been caught in the ocean environment. Vacationers from all across the country show up at the coastal beaches and surfing and on the business side of things, businesses across the country are supplying food and other supplies for the hotels and restaurants that support that coastal tourism.

HOST: And where in the U.S. is the largest ocean economy? Which state or which region?

JEFF ADKINS: Well, the largest economy as a whole is California, it’s enormous. It’s larger than several nations, they’re actually larger than most nations, I think there’s nine or 10 nations with an economy bigger than California, so not surprisingly, they’re one of the biggest. They’re one or two depending on whether you’re looking at employment or wages or GDP, but it’s huge. In terms of GDP it would be Texas with the GDP associated with offshore oil and gas, but in every other measure, California is the largest.

As a matter of fact, because of the importance of California in the nation’s ocean economy, in a study that’s designed to show the importance of the coast and investments of the coast to the heartland, we chose California as the site for this study and because marine transportation and tourism and recreation are the two largest sectors in California’s ocean economy, we focused on those two sectors.

HOST: So Jeff, based on your research and this project in California, what can you tell us about their ocean economy?

JEFF ADKINS: Well, it’s huge compared to the rest of the nation and also within the state of California most of the activity takes place in the nearshore environment and a tremendous amount of that is in the parts that are directly dependent upon the ocean. The two biggest sectors are marine transportation and that includes things like the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach and Oakland, huge major seaports, but also all the warehousing that goes with that and all of the port services that go with that, so it’s a big operation. And then obviously California’s beaches which draws individuals but also international-scale surfing tournaments and that sort of thing.

HOST: So, the economic data that you’re pulling together, who will use this data?

JEFF ADKINS: Well, the study’s not complete, but we’re already seeing a demand for some of the information produced in the study. The business community in California where this pilot study is focused along with some of the local planning bodies and state and local government officials have asked for briefings from the study and have asked what would be involved in conducting follow-up studies to dig even deeper into this question of the significance of the coast to inland areas. Our focus was primarily on inland parts of the U.S. but in California they also want to tease out the importance of California’s coast to the inland parts of California.

HOST: What would you say is the most interesting thing you learned while pulling this data together and exploring things about California, what can you share with us as one of the more interesting things you learned with this project?

JEFF ADKINS: It’s really hard to pick just one thing. I’ll name a couple. One is just it’s interesting to see how much industry across the United States depends on California’s ports. Heavy industry, car manufacturing, tractor manufacturing in Tennessee and Illinois and other heavy manufacturing in Ohio that is either receiving inputs to the production process or shipping to overseas markets or both through California ports.

Another interesting thing to me based on what we all sensed to be true about the importance of tourism in California and the general size of that economy—it’s the largest in terms of employment for California’s ocean sectors and largest nationally, California’s number one in terms of employment in that sector, and yet we don’t have a lot of data. There’s really a shortage of data on the inland implications of the coastal tourism sector and I should qualify what I’ve said. There’s a tremendous amount of data from place-based studies, but in terms of systematically collecting data at a national level that would allow us to compare one place with another and look at the same place and make comparisons over time, it seems to be neglected in that regard as compared to some of the other sectors.

HOST: Jeff, so stepping out of the California project just a little bit, do we tend to see the same sector of the ocean economy, say marine transportation for example, accounting for the highest percent of the ocean economy in all coastal states? Or does this really vary? Some coastal states have a bigger piece than others.

JEFF ADKINS: It’s a little of both. I think in general, in terms of employment, the ocean-based tourism and recreation sector is the largest in most places. A caveat with that is that it does include part-time workers in that total and so if you look at the wages per employee they tend to be lower than some of the other sectors, on the other hand, my children and I and a lot of other people I know worked their way through college on coastal tourism and recreation jobs, waiting tables in restaurants and things like that, so these jobs are important, every job is important, that’s sort of the commonality in the data, but in other sectors, obviously the offshore mineral production is mainly oil and gas in terms of dollar value and that’s primarily concentrated in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and to some extent in California.

Ship and boat building tends to be concentrated, certainly on the ship building side, in a few locations in some of the major shipyards around the country. On the boat building side it tends to correlate more closely to tourism and recreation because it includes boat repairs and folks on vacation have an accident and they need to get their boat worked on. So you see a little of both, some sectors are spread more evenly and some very heavily concentrated in a few areas.

HOST: OK, it’s interesting to see how that all plays out. For those of us who may want to explore some of this data further that you’ve talked today, I understand the California project data is not quite ready yet, but if it’s for California or another state, is there a place we can go to get this information, dive into it a little bit more?

JEFF ADKINS: Yeah, the time series data that we have extends from 2005 to 2012 and we have a number of ways that folks can access that data. You can see the data being used in some specific place-based applications through the Coastal County Snapshots tool which gives an overview of the ocean economy of coastal counties in the United States. We also have a number of story maps that we’ve developed that use the data and other information to tell more in-depth stories about the ocean economy. One of them looks at the ocean economy as a whole, another looks at commercial fishing and how the nature of commercial fishing changes so much from place to place around the coast. And then we just completed one on the inland significance of California’s coastal ports and it shows some examples of specific industries that are located in Tennessee and Illinois and Ohio with some electronics industries in Texas that are receiving inputs and exporting their final products through California’s ports.

For more experienced users that want to interact with the data and play around with it, we have the ENOW explorer tool that lets them select a place and look at the various ocean sectors and get a little report card on the state or county of interest. And then finally, for folks that are very experienced, they just want to get the data and get back to work, there’s a couple of ways that you can get that. From our website you can download the entire dataset or you can go to our quick report tool for socioeconomic data and very quickly you select a place and the type of data that you want and the years that you want the data for and it will be visible on the screen and you can download by one click as a CSV file.

HOST: Jeff, just to wrap up our chat today, I wanted to see if you had any final, closing words to leave our listeners with?

JEFF ADKINS: It always strikes me when I’m looking at the composition of the ocean economy, the different sectors that take place in the ocean and nearshore environment, what a challenge we have on our hands. Some of that activity depends on the health of ecosystems and the ecosystem services that are provided and some of it doesn’t. And all of this activity is taking place in the same environment, all of those jobs are important jobs, and all the wages are important and it’s really a challenging management problem to accommodate such diverse types of activity in the same place and create the kind of win-wins that we’ve seen in recent years where we’ve had healthy growth in all of those sectors and where the offshore mineral production and shipping and ship and boat building is growing at the same time as the coastal tourism and other sectors that depend on the health of those ecosystems.

HOST: Thanks Jeff for joining us today on Diving Deeper and exploring our ocean economy. For folks who are interested, feel free to explore some of this data yourself. You can see our show notes for links to some of the tools and products that Jeff mentioned or just visit coast.noaa.gov. That’s all for today’s show, thanks for tuning in!

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Connect with ocean experts in our podcast series that explores questions about the ocean environment. Get ready to Dive Deeper!

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