A rising voice for the ocean: exploring the role of an ocean economist with Kaija Barisa

When living in a world where decisions are based on a cost-benefit analysis, one challenge becomes clear: how can we define a monetary value for the many environmental, social, and economic benefits provided by the ocean?

Kaija Barisa, Senior Economist at Blue Marine Foundation (BMF), is working to find an answer to this question. In the Blue Economics team, one of eight strategic units at the organization, they aim to put a value on aspects of the ocean that are difficult to define, so they can be recognized in political decision-making.

Ocean conservation goes beyond a moral imperative, it is a smart economic decision. As this article by the Blue Economics team points out “for every dollar invested in marine conservation, a return of 10 dollars could be generated”.

Growing up by the Baltic Sea, Kaija discovered her love for swimming and caring for marine ecosystems. The sparks came instantly, and one thing was for sure: she wanted to work in the environmental sector.

Kaija started her career path with a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Edinburgh in Ecology and Environmental Science.  As a science student, Kaija realized she wanted to be part of the solution and found in economics a powerful tool to make decisions happen:

“After learning about the science, I realized I wanted to talk about the effects that environmental impacts were having on the global economy. Particularly in how we value nature and start accounting for it in the global economy. Otherwise, we face catastrophic collapses socially, environmentally, and economically.”

Straight after her undergraduate degree, and in a world building back from the COVID-19 pandemic, she started her master’s at Imperial College London in Environmental Technology, specializing in Environmental Economics and Policy. Her love for the ocean never left her heart, and she found her way back to it when she noticed the change needed in one of the least funded ecosystems.

The image is taken underwater. It shows green seagrass on a sandy bottom. The seagrass covers all the picture frame. In the middle, a big structure, a coral reef attracts different black and white fishes.

According to this article published in 2022, “The ocean needs about USD 175 billion per year for conservation and restoration work, and with current ocean investment estimated at USD 25 billion, there is a USD 150 billion gap to cover every year.“ Image credits: Matt Curnock / Ocean Image Bank.

The surprises behind the role

You may be wondering, what is it like to be a blue economist? Is it all about numbers and excel sheets?

Kaija’s day-to-day is always changing, and it involves a wide array of topics. From supporting small-scale fishermen and looking at finance mechanisms to support marine protected areas, to bringing the economics of overfishing to life by researching and writing economic reports.

In other words, Kaija will assess the different ways projects can make money to demonstrate to governments and stakeholders the self-sustaining economic value of a healthy ocean with continued investment in conservation efforts and small-scale fishing communities.

The conservation economics field is experiencing exponential growth in innovation and research with new financing mechanisms like biodiversity or carbon credits. Keeping up with the new trends plays an important part of Kaija’s job.

It may seem like a lot of research, economic theories, and numeric skills behind her work. But one of her biggest surprises is how crucial communication and networking skills are to this role. Kaija feels most excited and inspired when communicating those concepts and benefits behind valuing marine ecosystems to local communities, government stakeholders, private institutions, and colleagues. As she explains:

“Being able to digest and translate complex economic theory and present it in a comprehensible manner to an audience that might not feel familiar with the topic is incredibly important. I think being a clear communicator is probably the skill that I use the most.”

The controversy of valuing the ocean

Kaija realizes that the conservation economics is complex.  How can we define a monetary value of the ocean when its intrinsic value is so hard to measure?

The reality is, without a monetary value, is difficult to get nature and the ocean into the decision room and make a case for the solutions you want to achieve. Currently, the ocean is being more valued for how we can exploit it, rather than the benefits a healthy and thriving ocean gives us. On the other hand, conservation economics allows for a holistic, comprehensive, and long-term view of the ocean’s value.

In bringing about this change of philosophy, Kaija works to bring a strong argument and voice to the decision-making table. When she meets the local communities behind the conservation projects, it reveals the complexity and efforts behind protecting the ocean. Hence, the value of a marine protected area, or a small-scale fishery, is more than numbers. It brings clarity and power to the data she is presenting. As she explains:

“How I see it, when you’re trying to decide to protect an area, it’s incredibly important to be able to compare the economic value of the benefits stemming from a protected healthy ocean environment, to business as usual.

Just having those two units in front of each other, can build a productive conversation. The benefit we’re getting from giving a numeric value to the ocean is a voice in the room.”

The bright sight is, new movements for conservation within the economic field are gaining momentum. For instance, the new Nature Positive Movement. Rather than the classic financial return, investors are starting to finance nature-positive activities with an environmental and social return in mind.

Kaija is very excited to see how financial institutions, corporate and private sectors move a step further, and contribute positively to the conservation of the ocean.

The image is taken underwater by the surface. It shows three curious sea lions. Two of them are very close to the camera and looking at the photographer. Two more sealions are swimming in the back of the picture. They look very friendly.

While many are working for a joint mission: protect 30% of the ocean worldwide by 2030, closing the funding gap to achieve it is also needed. Credit: Amanda Cotton / Ocean Image Bank.

The future is bright and inspiring for the economists joining conservation

While surfing the wave of ocean economics, Kaija has found it a very rewarding experience. Local communities surrounding conservation areas have an incredible amount of knowledge and understanding of their local environment which always nourishes her work. Furthermore, she has learned so much from her colleagues on communication, policy and ecological knowledge that is so crucial when working in such an interdisciplinary space like marine conservation.

There is also one thing that stands out in the conservation field: the importance of collaboration and working towards a joint mission. As she strongly highlights:

“The ability within this field for people to work together is incredibly inspiring to me. It’s been something that I didn’t know was going to be such a crucial skill. I’m very proud to be able to work and collaborate with so many amazing people, both in my organization and outside of it.”

Challenges for economists working in conservation are always around the corner, whether it is sorting speculative scenarios, navigating new markets, or valuing ecosystem services that have been undervalued, or never been valued before. Keeping an open mind and remaining proactive are crucial in this rapidly evolving field. Kaija openly suggests:

“Be ready to tackle diverse topics, be able to be quite technical, but incredibly comprehensive at the same time. Reach out to people that you find inspiring or think you can learn from or have questions for, whether it’s on LinkedIn or via email. Most of the time, people are very happy to talk to you.”

The year 2030 should be a turning point for our ocean. While many are working for a joint mission: protect 30% of the ocean worldwide by 2030, closing the funding gap to achieve it is also needed.

As Kaija and her team continue to try and shift the ocean economy away from an exploitative model to one that values conservation with a positive, community-based mission, we are looking forward to seeing more passion-driven economists rising the voice for ocean conservation.

Thinking about joining the field?

Kaija would like to recommend a few books for aspiring ocean economists:

If you want to learn more about Blue Marine Foundation projects, visit their website: www.bluemarinefoundation.com/our-projects/.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in conservation as an economist, check out this Conservation Economist role profile, one of the 11 Key Conservation Roles.


Author Profile | Giuliana Vomero

Giuliana is a Marine Biologist born and raised in Uruguay, South America. She is passionate about bridging ocean and marine science with society. She has gathered experience in coordinating environmental outreach projects, events, and networking building. In her free time she loves to write and share the wonders of the ocean and stories behind the work of passionate conservationists worldwide.

Connect with Giuliana on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter or Visit her website.

Check out more conservation interviews by Giuliana.


Interviews, Economist