OPINION: To build sustainable ocean economies, start by investing in women

by Amanda Leland and Durreen Shahnaz | Environmental Defense Fund
Friday, 25 June 2021 15:08 GMT

Women sort fish during the drying process at Muara Angke district in Jakarta, Indonesia January 6, 2020. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To do this, the sector needs more sustainable finance – whether in the form of traditional loans and grants, blended- and micro-finance, blue bonds or insurance instruments

Amanda Leland is an executive vice president at Environmental Defense Fund. Durreen Shahnaz is the founder and CEO of Impact Investment Exchange (IIX) and IIX Foundation.

Karina Aguilar fishes for grouper, octopus and sea cucumber in the Yucatan region of Mexico. A champion of sustainable fishing, she has been slowly growing her cooperative business and hopes to open a processing plant to export her products to international markets. To do that, she will need financing.

She may have a long wait.

Some 60 million women work in the fishing industry, making up nearly half that global workforce. But women often do the least recognized and lowest paid jobs – collecting fish on the beach or working side-by-side in processing plants – and have little access to capital to start or grow their own businesses.

They face discrimination, hold few management positions and are underrepresented in decision-making groups about investments for sustainable fisheries. And yet evidence shows that when we invest in women, they are empowered to conserve and manage natural resources like our oceans, which yields better results than when they are excluded.

Aguilar believes that with financing and a secure fishing rights arrangement in which fishers get a specific share of allowable catch based on the fishery’s health, she can add value to her products and increase her profits without the pressure of fishing more to earn more.

Investing in women is also the smartest way to invest in human and planetary health. Across Asia and developing markets, where women play a pivotal role in the welfare of their families, research reveals that economically secure women are more likely to have healthier and better-educated children, creating a positive impact for their communities. It is no wonder that closing the gender gap could add $28 trillion in global GDP over 10 years—more than enough to ensure a healthy, sustainable and equitable ocean economy.

To do this, the sector needs more sustainable finance – whether in the form of traditional loans and grants, blended- and micro-finance, blue bonds or insurance instruments, according to a paper we co-authored that was published this week in Nature.

We highlight barriers to increasing sustainable ocean finance, among them a weak policy and regulatory environment for attracting finance, a lack of high-quality, investable projects with appropriate deal size and risk-return ratios, and a higher relative risk profile of ocean investments compared to land investments.

There have been some bright spots. Public-private partnerships such as the Netherlands’ green investment tax-exempt funds allow investors in these projects access to low-interest loans. 

Multilateral development banks and impact funds are committing billions of dollars to new ocean initiatives. Climate and terrestrial investors like the Green Climate Fund are looking to make their portfolios more ‘blue’.

Maritime insurers are recognizing the value of resilient coastlines. Blue bonds and debt-for-nature swaps hold promise for catalyzing the transition to a sustainable ocean economy.

For the first time, social bonds like the Women’s Livelihood Bond Series are driving investment at the intersection of gender equality and climate action.

The cost of inaction to conserve our oceans is unacceptably high. Studies have shown that we lose up to $80 billion each year because of overfishing; the cost for dealing with sea-level rise caused by climate change could be as much as ten times that by 2100.

Sustainable ocean financing would help undo the damage from coastal degradation, overfishing and other unsustainable practices that are hurting the livelihoods of millions. And integrating a gender lens into investments in sustainable fisheries will help investors better support women in the industry.

In Mexico, Aguilar is waiting for financing to fund her dream of opening an export processing plant, but she has an even simpler financial need now.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people stopped shopping at her cooperative’s fish shop in San Crisanto. So, she started driving house to house with fish in a small cooler. To reach more communities and sell higher-quality products at better prices, Aguilar wants to buy a specialized vehicle to keep the fish cooled at an adequate temperature.

Sometimes all a woman needs is a small investment. After all, it can pay outsized rewards. Is that too much to ask of investors in our oceans?