Economic Geographies of the Sea

Finally, economic geographers as well are beginning to direct their attention to the ocean. Countless local and national economies are driven by the tourism sector and, within the tourism sector, a wide range of activities involve tourists embracing the ocean, whether from the shore, a ship, the surface, or beneath the waves. Economic gain is also constructed in the ocean through the extraction of living and nonliving resources. The greatest source of economic value in the ocean, however, is derived from the function that it serves as a surface for trade. The tremendous growth in the quantity (and value) of goods shipped across ocean space (increasing from 996 million tons in 1959 to 6760 million tons in 2005) has been accompanied by the advent of containerization, a technological innovation that has had far reaching implications not just for the shipping industry but also for urban form and hierarchy. Containerization has led to port consolidation and the establishment of mechanized megaports that typically are in areas removed from historic harbor fronts. This transformation, in turn, has led to urban decay in some areas and opened up new opportunities for heritage tourism and/or gentrification in others, while the port management industry itself has attracted the attention of economic geographers who focus on the way in which this industry fuses investment in place with the development of transoceanic corporate networks.

Additionally, as economic geographers (and national economies) have turned away from the production and consumption of manufactured, tangible commodities to intangible services that produce value, trade (and the space across which trade occurs) has become more central to economic geographic research. This shift in focus among economic geographers has received additional impetus from the prominence of a group of economists who call themselves ‘new economic geographers’. While many geographers have criticized the conceptualization of space utilized by the new economic geographers, a central message that the group has been bringing to their fellow economists is that the spaces within which goods are produced and transported are significant factors in economic processes and cannot simply be written off as transaction costs. It may be fitting that a favorite modeling device of the new economic geographers is the iceberg function, a distance coefficient that metaphorically refers to the temporality, nature, and spatial texturing of the marine environment within which so much economic activity takes place.