Just 100 companies account for most of the profits from the world’s seas, researchers said on Wednesday, calling on them to help save the oceans from over-fishing, rising temperatures and pollution.

Together, the companies generated $1.1 trillion in revenues in 2018, or about 60% of the total, according to a study that sets out for the first time which firms profit the most from marine industries.

Oceans play a critical role in capturing planet-warming gases, absorbing around 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions. But environmentalists say much more needs to be done to protect them.

“There’s so much talk about the need for sustainable oceans … but there’s very rarely a conversation about who it is that needs to do the job,” said Henrik Osterblom, who co-authored the paper published in the journal Science Advances.


The 10 largest transnational corporations (TNCs) in each of the eight core ocean economy industries generated, on average, 45% of the respective total industry revenues in 2018 (Fig. 1). The ocean industries with the highest level of concentration were the cruise industry (93%), container shipping (85%), and port activities (82%). Yet, individual industries were characterized by vastly different revenue volumes. For instance, each of the top 10 offshore oil and gas production TNCs had annual revenues exceeding any of the largest TNCs in the other industries, except for container shipping (table S1).

Fig. 1 Concentration in the ocean economy.

“We have identified who has power to influence the future of the oceans,” Osterblom, science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Just knowing who they are is the first step in getting them involved in what needs to be done.”

The team of researchers including Osterblom and environmental experts at Duke University in the United States focused on eight sea-based industries ranging from container shipping to seafood production and offshore wind.

The “Ocean 100” list was topped by offshore oil and gas giants including Saudi Aramco and Brazil’s Petrobras, with only one firm from outside the industry, Danish shipping company A.P. Moeller-Maersk, making the top 10.

Fig. 2 The Ocean 100.

It could help inform government policies as well as direct environmental groups seeking to push business towards greener practices, Osterblom said.

“One of our biggest challenges is to sustain healthy ocean ecosystems as economic use increases and climate impacts accelerate,” said Daniel Vermeer, director of Duke University’s Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment.

“This study confirms that a relatively small number of companies will be central to this challenge, and have a real opportunity for leadership.”

Fig. 3 Geographic distribution of TNCs in the ocean economy.


The ocean economy is highly concentrated among a relatively small number of companies. The 100 TNCs with the highest annual revenues in 2018 from ocean use, labeled here as the Ocean 100, generated 60% of the total revenues from their respective industries, which collectively form the core of the ocean economy. Emerging ocean industries with high entry costs, such as deep-sea mining, marine biotechnology, and offshore renewable energy, are likely to reinforce this trend.

This poses risks for achieving internationally agreed targets for conservation and sustainable use, most notably within the Sustainable Development Agenda and the Strategic Framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Given that high concentration in the ocean economy is the current reality, identifying the Ocean 100 provides a basis for informed engagement, which can help to prioritize interventions and ensure that they are framed in the best available science.

Illustrating to the primary corporate beneficiaries of ocean use that mainstreaming stewardship across their planning and operations is crucial for the long-term viability of their industries could spur large-scale change, reflected perhaps in (i) uniform reporting toward SDG 14 targets, (ii) leadership toward a low-carbon ocean economy, and (iii) additional financing for ocean public goods (e.g., through establishment of a global ocean funding mechanism such as a global ocean tax).

Much has been written about the failures of ocean governance and particularly of governments before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, but could the private sector, and specifically the Ocean 100, be part of a new narrative for the ocean that subsequently emerges and helps accelerate humanity’s progress toward achieving SDG 14?

Given the mismatch between the current pace of change in humanity’s use of the ocean and formal governance responses, the answers to these questions may determine whether or not a more sustainable and equitable ocean economy—a truly “blue” economy—can be achieved.