Group looks seaward to grow 'blue economy'

North Shore Chamber of Commerce/Courtesy photoKatherine Kahl, professor of sustainable fisheries and coastal resilience at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Gloucester Marine Station, speaks to the North Shore Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday about the North Shore's "blue economy."

PEABODY — When discussing the economy on Cape Ann and the North Shore, most of the focus is on jobs, businesses, and developments that are created with solid ground underfoot.

Now there's an effort to turn people's attention to the ocean and its potential to grow the economy beyond our shores.

That was the subject of a talk on Wednesday morning by Katherine Kahl, a professor of sustainable fisheries and coastal resilience based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Gloucester Marine Station.

Kahl is leading an effort to assess and grow the "blue economy" on Cape Ann and the North Shore. Speaking to 150 people at the North Shore Chamber of Commerce's policy breakfast forum at the Boston Marriott Peabody Hotel, Kahl described the blue economy as the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean eco-system health."

"This is a pioneering opportunity to take a different look," she said.

Kahl said the blue economy includes several sectors, from fishing and aquaculture to marine construction, tourism and recreation, marine robotics and coastal resilience.

Kahl gave examples of several businesses that are already a part of the blue economy. SeaTrac is a company in Marblehead that designs and develops remotely controlled unmanned boats that collect ocean data for the defense, energy and environment sectors.

Kahl said the technology could be used to help Cape Ann and the North Shore develop strategies for protecting its coastline from rising tides and increasingly intense storms, or help the fishing industry, among other uses.

"This is some amazing technology and we should think about how their success could be translated into the visions that some of you might have for your businesses," she told the audience.

Kahl also mentioned companies such LobsterNet of Gloucester, which places sensors in lobster pots to monitor and collect pH and temperature data, and Neptune's Harvest Organic Fertilizer, also of Gloucester, which turns fish waste products into organic fertilizer.

Kahl also pointed to Salem State University's Cat Cove Laboratory, which is using new aquaculture technology to raise mussels seven miles off Cape Ann.

"We bring in the majority of our seafood from foreign sources," she said. "How do we look at opportunities like this to raise more local seafood?"

Kahl said warming oceans, sea level rise and more frequent storm events are changing the way Cape Ann and the North Shore can make money from its ocean resources. Coastal property owners are facing storm damage and higher insurance rates. Beaches and salt marshes are eroding.

"These dynamics are changing, so we have to think about this as part of the overall solution," she said.

Kahl said the North Shore Blue Economy Initiative, as it is called, is in the first year of a 10-year project. The group has hired the UMass-Dartmouth Public Policy Center to do an economic analysis of Cape Ann and the North Shore's blue economy. A report is due in April.

State Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, who attended the forum, said the region must still invest in traditional blue economy sectors such as commercial fishing, but said there is "unlimited potential" in other areas like renewable energy and aquaculture.

"If we can map out that blueprint we can make strategic investments at the private level and the public level that are going to make an incredible difference and open up a vast frontier," he said. 

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@gloucestertimes.com.

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