Foresight - Future of the Sea

This report, Foresight Future of the Sea, summarises evidence on social, technological, environmental, economic and political changes, and is the product of combined expertise from science, industry and policy. Its recommendations are intended to inform future activity. 

The future sea will be busier, with new technology opening it up for greater exploration and exploitation. Its resources will be more in demand from a growing global population. Its environment is expected to be transformed by climate change, with major implications for the industries and communities that depend on it, both in the UK and globally. These trends expose four structural issues that the UK, often in partnership with the rest of the world, must address in order to adapt and succeed in the future.


  • The global population is projected to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050. As a result, demand for energy will nearly double, while food and water demand will increase by over 50 per cent. It is also estimated that by 2050 the demand for minerals may increase by 25 per cent.
  • In the absence of new technologies to reduce emissions, global shipping could be responsible for up to 17 per cent of carbon emissions by 2050.
  • Over 31 per cent of global fish stocks are currently fished to biologically unsustainable levels.41 A growing demand for resources will create challenges for the sustainable management of capture fisheries and increasing aquaculture production, which is growing by 8 per cent globally year on year.
  • Across the globe, we produce more than 300 million tonnes of plastic per annum, and projections suggest that the amount of plastic in the sea will treble between 2015 and 2025. Plastic breaks down into ever smaller pieces, rather than decomposing.
  • The GVA of the global ‘ocean economy’ (as defined by the OECD) is projected to double to $3 trillion by 2030.
  • Global trade, which is primarily maritime, is projected to double by 2031.
  • Potential emergence of completely new sectors, such as deep-sea mining, and the rapid growth of others, such as aquaculture and offshore renewable energy.

Ocean Economy
Key long-term trends

  • Growing reliance on the sea for resources driven by a growing global population and resource demand, and facilitated by innovations in offshore energy, aquaculture, and seabed mining
  • Doubling of the global ‘ocean economy’ to $3 trillion by 2030, including strong growth in emerging sectors where the UK has shown leadership, e.g. offshore wind
  • Busier seas, including a doubling of global trade by 20315 and new infrastructure related to marine resource extraction
  • Autonomy and robotics will improve our understanding of the marine environment, facilitate new and more-efficient economic activity, and pose new challenges for communication at sea and the UK’s skills base
  • Climate change and other human activities will compound declining fish stocks, coastal infrastructure, and other economic activities that rely on a healthy and resilient marine environment.

Marine Science
Key long-term trends

  • Rapid, poorly understood changes to the sea. There is currently insufficient evidence to understand the full implications of the chemical, biological and physical changes described in this report.
  • Big data and modelling. Industry projects a 40-fold increase in the amount of data collected annually by 2020.18 In the sea, this will be supplemented by autonomous vehicles that allow for more regular data collection and greater access to the deep sea and other inhospitable marine environments. This has implications for our understanding and modelling of the marine environment, and for the economy.
  • The threat from climate change. This is likely to increase demand for science and research to address uncertainty about its impacts.
  • Demand for technological solutions to enable autonomy. Autonomy is likely to be the single most important marine technological development. There are a range of challenges associated with introducing autonomy, including a need for improved battery technology, electric propulsion technology, data transfer and inter-device connectivity.

Key long-term trends

  • Marine biodiversity will face growing threats linked to human activities. Over-exploitation is the key threat, but will be compounded by climate change. The decline and, in some cases, extinction of marine organisms will damage the long-term health of the oceans and its services, such as carbon sequestration and food provision.
  • Sea level rise is expected to increase the regularity of coastal flooding (especially when coupled with extreme weather events), affecting transport networks, housing and other important infrastructure.
  • Ocean warming of 1.2–3.2°C, depending on emissions, is projected by 2100. Evidence shows that this causes decline in cold-water fish species, coral bleaching, and is likely to lead to new species in UK waters.
  • Plastic in the ocean is projected to treble between 2015 and 2025. Plastic does not decompose, instead breaking down into ever smaller pieces. The full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches.
  • Chemical pollution is an ongoing issue, as pollutants can persist in the oceans for decades after their use is restricted by legislation. The list of chemicals deemed to be persistent organic pollutants (POPs) continues to grow.

International engagement
Key long-term trends

  • The impacts of climate change. For example, fisheries loss threatens to destabilise countries that rely on them, and sea level rise is likely to shift coastlines and in some cases threaten the existence of small island states.
  • The growing value of marine territory linked to growing demand for marine resources and new technology to extract and identify them. This creates the risk of growing global tension over existing disputed areas, e.g. in the South China Sea.
  • A growing ability to monitor illegal activity at sea. Policing large spaces is inherently problematic, but developments in satellites and other technologies are likely to make policing illegal fishing and other activities easier. This will require robust mechanisms for enforcing the law.
  • The growing trend for exploration of resources in the deep sea, which may require new legal instruments.
  • The potential for global instability linked in particular to flooding of low-lying coastal regions, and food insecurity in seafood-dependent regions


By Martine Farstad