Facts & figures

  • The ocean covers over 70% of the planet
    and represents more than 90% of its biosphere
  • Measuring the economic, social & environmental value of the ocean
    is critical to ensuring the sustainable management of its resources
  • GOAP brings together global stakeholders to measure and manage
    progress towards ocean sustainable development through "ocean accounting"
Ocean accounting enables the true wealth of the ocean to be measured, enabling sustainable marine development for future generations, says a UNSW expert.

Accurately capturing the economic, social, and environmental value of the ocean is critical to ensuring the sustainable management of our ocean resources, says UNSW Scientia Fellow Dr Ben Milligan, director of the Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) Secretariat hosted by the UNSW Sustainable Development Reform Hub in Law & Justice. GOAP brings together countries and global stakeholders to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development through ocean accounting.

“Ocean accounting is an ideal tool for calculating economic value versus potential ecological losses when it comes to development within our oceans. This is integral to managing our oceans more effectively and promoting the sustainable development of marine habitats for present and future generations,” says Dr Milligan.

GOAP provides a first-of-its-kind communication and collaboration platform for governments, international organisations, and research institutions to build capacity and exchange knowledge on ocean accounting. The partnership is co-chaired by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The international community of practice includes more than 30 countries that co-produce and share research, protocols and practices.

Globally there is a shift from measuring marine benefits purely in terms of their contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) to including environmental and social indicators as well, says Dr Milligan whose research and advisory work integrates environmental information in public policymaking and the design of legal, institutional and policy frameworks for sustainable development. 

“The interrelationship between people’s welfare, nature sustainability and economic growth is indisputable. When it comes to the maritime sector, many of the benefits and opportunities are not explored or managed due to suboptimal documentation systems.” 

Dr Ben Milligan

Ocean accounting has significant potential to support a range of government processes, highlighting values that might otherwise be overlooked. For example, accounts measuring benefits from mangroves could identify the dependency of the fisheries and tourism sectors to the biodiversity it supports, he says. The accounts could further justify the financial resources needed to restore degraded mangroves to increase their benefits to the economy and society. 

“GOAP has furthered methods to account for these important ecosystems, from local to national scales, to highlight their value in decision making, including budget development processes.”

Ocean accounts are a means to develop a global benchmark of equilibrium between economic growth and ocean sustainability, he says. Projects piloted under GOAP see local communities, academic and research institutions, government departments and multilateral agencies coming together to collate data in a holistic way to measure and manage progress toward sustainable ocean development for a variety of contexts. 

With pilots spanning the globe, GOAP has managed to embed an evidence-based approach for national policy, inform science-based monitoring of ecosystems in small island developing states, further how we measure the ocean economy, and empower South-South collaboration to share experiences and lessons learnt.

An urgent call for action

The ocean covers over 70 per cent of the planet and represents more than 95% of the biosphere. In addition to food and economic activities, it also provides one of the largest natural carbon reservoirs. The ocean plays a significant role in climate moderation with deep-seabed habitats hosting millions of species crucial for supporting global carbon and biogeochemical cycles, such as nutrient regeneration.

“People are recognising that there is a major shift needed in how we make decisions about the environment to safeguard our long-term development … [and this] requires lots of collaboration between the public sector, the private sector, civil society, and so on.”

Dr Ben Milligan

GOAP connects international experts and marine policymakers to help embed ocean accounts in decision-making, development planning, policy and other ocean governance processes. Our current data and technology capabilities mean that countries anywhere in the world can now account for the state of wealth of the ocean, he says. 

“This is the most important measure of progress towards sustainability of the ocean economy,” he says. “The development and integration of ocean accounts into existing national accounts can provide a dynamic evidence base that goes beyond a single indicator of production to reflect the full value of the ocean economy.”

Global partnership extends engagement via COP15 and the High Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy

Progress towards more sustainable ocean economies is gaining momentum, he says. International leaders announced 341 new commitments to sustainable ocean development (worth more than $USD19.9 billion) at the eighth Our Ocean Conference, hosted by Panama in March 2023. GOAP hosted a panel, Ocean Accounts: Setting the Foundation for Sustainable Blue Economies, that featured government representatives of Palau, United States, Norway, Canada, and Indonesia at the conference, moderated by SDR Hub Director Eliza Northrop. 

During the panel discussion, United States Under-Secretary of Commerce and Administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr Rick Spinrad, announced NOAA’s intention to join GOAP to “formalise and strengthen the role that ocean accounts play in national ocean policy development and implementation and [to] advance greater collaboration with our neighbours, Canada and Mexico, and other members globally to support the transition to a sustainable ocean economy”. 

At the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) held in December 2022 in Montreal, Canada, its coalition of 196 countries reached a landmark biodiversity agreement; prioritising the effective conservation and management of at least 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and ocean was amongst the global targets. The agreement supports the use of ocean accounts as part of internationally recognised development protocols. 

GOAP is also supporting the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group of 17 current world leaders, including Australia’s prime minister, to work towards a sustainable ocean economy that bridges ocean health and human welfare and leverages the latest marine research. The Ocean Panel has committed to developing ocean accounts as a foundation for ocean development planning and delivering on their commitment to 100% sustainable management of national waters by 2030, Dr Milligan says. 

“By leveraging international expertise on sustainable ocean development, we can build a better relationship with people and the ocean that ensures its wealth is available to benefit future generations.”

Dr Ben Milligan

A UNSW approach to change-making collaborations

Hosting the secretariat of GOAP is part of the Sustainable Development Reform (SDR) Hub’s commitment to promoting enduring change-making collaborations with external stakeholders through consultation and seed funding. The SDR Hub brings together stakeholders to have some agency in solving pressing real-world problems, and furnishing them with the evidence they need, says SDR Hub Director Eliza Northrop.

“On a global level, there is an acute need in society to connect knowledge and people to make small steps toward big changes,” says the environmental lawyer who specialises in climate change law and policy, ocean governance, and natural resource management. “The Hub creates safe spaces for change-makers, from government, business, and wider society, to plan pragmatic action for a sustainable low-carbon future informed by knowledge and insights from around the world.” 

The SDR Hub is co-led by Dr Ben Milligan, Eliza Northrop, and Dr Phil James, based at UNSW Law & Justice. Ocean accounts contribute to the Hub’s work on Development Beyond GDP which sits alongside additional pillars of work, Unlocking Zero-Carbon Transitions and Economies that Work for People and Nature.


Written by Kay Harrison

Researcher