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Technology and Sustainability

A way forward for Puerto Rico?

Sometimes disasters offer the potential for a new way to move forward. This was the case in Puerto Rico following hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017, according to the US Economic Development Administration’s Juan Bauza. The EDA was activated to support Puerto Rico and its economic recovery, and it was “the extreme level of devastation in Puerto Rico that presented an opportunity for not just rebuilding, but for transformational economic development.”
Diver studying coralA collaborative effort between government agencies, local organizations, and stakeholders yielded the “Puerto Rico Economic Disaster Recovery Plan”, which includes eight future-facing strategic economic recovery strategies – one of which is to focus on the blue economy. Building on this, Tetra Tech, an engineering and environmental consulting firm, developed “A Strategic Implementation Plan for Catalyzing a Blue Economy in the US Caribbean” in 2021. The strategic plan emphasizes the importance of research and technology innovation.

Bauza states that central to all this work was the question, “how can we be proactive and responsible from a business standpoint when we’re looking at the ocean?” He states, “by default this requires an academic component, a research component, and a nonprofit component for community engagement. But the objective has to be an economic development engine.”

Pursuing an economic diversification strategy for Puerto Rico was planned to be implemented in a series of phases, according to Bauza. The first step was the creation of Bluetide Puerto Rico (bluetidepr.org), a nonprofit whose mission is to “influence, innovate, support, and increase the economic impacts and eco-responsible developments for a sustainable blue economy in the US Caribbean”.

The next step, according to Bauza, was to acquire “all the equipment necessary to insert Puerto Rico competitively in the blue economy at an international level.” The first priority was to build a team and credibility in the region.

In April 2022, Bluetide Puerto Rico took delivery of a state-of-the-art $4.6 million marine research vessel, Blue Manta. At 77 feet, the catamaran-hulled boat has live-aboard space for 8 (plus 3 crew) and room for 30 people to work. Built by All American Marine, the Blue Manta is similar in design to a marine research vessel built for the Duke University Marine Lab.

Blue Manta Placing a Fish Aggregating Device; Courtesy of Bluetide Puerto Rico
However, Blue Manta is unique in that it was customized to be used not only by researchers, but also for commercial projects, disaster assistance, salvage, and recovery projects. Some of the features and equipment onboard include:

  • Both wet and dry laboratories
  • Cranes and winches
  • Scuba and communication gear for 20 divers
  • 2 ROVs (small remotely operated submarines)
  • Drone with LiDAR technology
  • Drone with multispectral cameras

The boat requires a minimum of just 6 feet of water to operate. This means that Blue Manta can not only work in the Puerto Rico trench area off the north coast (the deepest trench in the Atlantic Ocean), it can also work close to shore on projects such as shoreline mapping and construction. The Blue Manta is licensed to go into international waters, providing more flexibility for researchers and commercial ventures.

Blue Manta is unique in that it was customized to be used not only by researchers, but also for commercial projects, disaster assistance, salvage, and recovery projects.

The vessel’s captain, Benny Bonet-Santiago, says that having the boat in Puerto Rico will greatly improve the opportunity for marine research and projects. “Before getting the Blue Manta, institutions and contractors had to try to acquire a vessel like this from the mainland US and bring it here.”

The first large-scale project undertaken with the Blue Manta was the placing of 22 large Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) along the north shore of Puerto Rico, where the waters can often be quite rough. Because of its stability as a catamaran and ease of handling, the boat’s captain reports that they were able to deploy the large FAD buoys, despite the 7 to 10-foot seas.

Research Vessel Blue Manta Off Coast of Puerto Rico; Courtesy of Bluetide

Bluetide has five marine biologists on staff, and there is always at least one on board during projects not only to provide support, but to monitor that work is being done properly and in accordance with regulations. Benny states, “this vessel is here to support the blue economy and help develop the island, but we are also focused on what we can do to conserve, protect, and help with restoration.”

According to the boat’s captain, the next big project that the Blue Manta is likely to be utilized for is a water quality and sediment analysis in Puerto Rico. The focus of the project will be to monitor pollution and contaminants. There have also been discussions about assisting with a nature documentary on a remote island, as well as possible FEMA-supported coral reef restoration.

Juan Bauza says that one of the hardest things an island faces after a severe storm is inspecting and reopening boat channels and harbors. Having a drone with LiDAR capacity, ROVs that can inspect the ocean floor, as well as a ship capable of hauling debris, “Puerto Rico will now be in a position to quickly triage the situation, rather than waiting for equipment and resources to arrive on the island.”

Interior of the Blue Manta Research Vessel

Interior of the Blue Manta Research Vessel; Courtesy of Bluetide

The third phase in the strategy is the construction of an ocean research institute on the island. Approved in July 2021 with $16 million in government and local funding, this landmark project will be central to the goal, as described by Bauza, to “provide an opportunity for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to become a hub for business development under the United Nations’ SDG 14 [Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources].”

The 45,000-sf facility will be in the shape of a manta ray and will be located on the former Coast Guard pier at the now-shuttered Roosevelt Roads naval base in Ceiba at the eastern end of the island. The pier and surrounding land are in a sheltered harbor and, once complete, will be the home port for Blue Manta.

The Marine Business Innovation Research Center (MBIRC) — a name chosen to emphasize the focus on business — will be a multi-purpose facility with office space, a workshop, laboratories, and a coral propagation lab. The center will also provide training and education to foster workforce development. Most critically, the MBIRC is envisioned as a hub for innovation and startups, and will offer programs to help launch and grow startups through a partnership with Creative Startups, a global business accelerator.

Bauza states that a primary goal of the center, “is to have the ability to look at commercial opportunities in a sandbox.” This vision includes utilizing research, some of which (including wave data and marine pharmaceutical research) is already underway at universities in the region. Another key is having the right equipment available, such as the Blue Manta vessel. “The goal,” says Bauza, “is to bring together research insights, entrepreneurs with vision and passion, and impact investors looking for a return.”

The center will capitalize on several advantages Puerto Rico has, according to Bauza, including:

  • Benefit of strong ties with the US
  • A bilingual population
  • Year-round working climate
  • Access to 2,000-4,000 foot water within two miles

The development of the MBIRC facility is proceeding, with an RFP issued in August seeking architects and engineers to plan the development and construction of the facility. The winner of the design contest will be named in December 2022, with a goal of construction to take place over 36 months.

A key component of the MBIRC vision is to show that the center can be not only scalable, but replicable in other regions. While most of the planning and initiatives thus far have been government-funded, Bauza believes it’s critical for the programs overseen by Bluetide, including Blue Manta and the Marine Business Innovation and Research Center, to be financially sustainable.

Ultimately, it is hoped that technology and sustainable solutions will yield a quantifiable impact on Puerto Rico. As Bauza says, “Looking at the blue economy as an economic engine basically forces you to look at how closely it’s interconnected with everything — it is not just about fish, it’s about risk reduction, hazard mitigation, and economic resilience.”

This article is Part Five of a series produced by Impact Entrepreneur about current and planned “blue economy” and resilience initiatives in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and broader Caribbean. This series is an outreach effort to communicate the Blue Economy Course of Action ECN 10 found in the Economic and Disaster Recovery Plan for Puerto Rico and bluetidepr.org. Other articles in the series are listed below as they appear.

I. A New Framework for Economic Revitalization in Puerto Rico

II. Measuring Impact in Puerto Rico’s Emerging Blue Economy

III. Resilience: Two experts discuss its importance to the impact economy

IV. Restoring Coral Reefs Is One Key to Puerto Rico’s Economic Future

VI. El Bienestar Común, or How Puerto Rico is Taking Care of Itself

Kim is a writer with a background in banking and non-profits. She has worked with several non-profits on projects relating to strategy, communications and planning.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Magazine's Content Partners.

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