The 400th anniversary of the founding of Gloucester is just three years away. Salem will turn 400 in 2026.

Both cities grew through their ties to the ocean, Gloucester as America’s Oldest Seaport, and Salem as a key player in the Old China Trade. They were instrumental not only in the survival and success of the Massachusetts colony but in the young nation as a whole.

Now, nearly four centuries after their founding, the two cities and their sister communities across the region have the opportunity to once again chart a course for the future. A new “blue economy” is beginning to emerge where technology meets the shoreline, and the region is well positioned to take advantage.

Katherine Kahl, professor of sustainable fisheries and coastal resilience at UMass and director of the school’s Gloucester Marine Station, describes the blue economy as “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs and ocean ecosystem health.”

Kahl admits that’s a mouthful. It’s easier to think of the blue economy in terms of its related industries: fishing and aquaculture, marine construction, tourism and recreation, marine robotics and coastal resilience.

Of course, many of those sectors have been around for years. But it’s only recently that they’ve been considered as part of something bigger.

“This is a pioneering opportunity to take a different look,” Kahl told the 150 business leaders at a North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast Wednesday.

There is already innovation happening across the region, she noted. Marblehead’s SeaTrac, for example, designs and develops remotely controlled boats that gather ocean data for the defense, energy and environmental sectors.

Salem State University’s Cat Cove Laboratory is using new aquaculture technology to raise mussels seven miles off Cape Ann. And for years, Neptune’s Harvest, also based in Gloucester, has turned gurry -- fish guts, basically -- into organic fertilizer.

For the blue economy to truly take off, all of these disparate entities need to work together -- or at the very least, share information. That’s the goal behind the North Shore Blue Economy Initiative, a 10-year project aimed at bringing businesses, educational institutions and government together around the issue. The initiative is in its first year and has already proven successful in bringing together the region’s stakeholders.

The next step is to gather data. What is the overall economic impact of the region’s marine-related sectors? Which are healthiest? Where is there opportunity for growth? A report on the region’s blue economy, compiled by UMass-Dartmouth’s Public Policy Center, is due next month. 

After that? Job training, says Jim Brett. For maritime-related innovation to take hold, the president and CEO of the New England Council told the Cape Ann Chamber at a separate event Thursday, there needs to be trained workers “in the talent pipeline.”

We agree. That’s what makes the state’s continued investment in the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute a wise move. The institute combines cutting edge research with an educational element that prepares young graduates for the jobs of the future through the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy. Late last month, the state approved a “skills capital” grant of nearly $1 million to help build a bioengineering and training lab. Three local companies -- New England Biolabs, BioMed Realty and the Payette design firm — have already agreed to kick in a 33% match.

The project -- combining the efforts of government, business and academia -- is the perfect example of the cooperation needed to turn an already productive, if scattered, blue economy into a powerful engine for the region and the state.

As state Sen. Bruce Tarr told business leaders Wednesday, the idea has “unlimited potential.”

“If we can map out that blueprint,” he said, “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.”


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