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Biden administration must accelerate ocean protection

With only 21 months left in his current term, President Biden’s ocean conservation accomplishments still fall far short of his rhetoric and promises.

Although his Jan. 27, 2021, Executive Order “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” calls for conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 (known as 30×30), so far very little has come from this pledge in the ocean. 

To date, the administration has designated only one new national marine sanctuary (NMS) — the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast NMS in the Great Lakes (a freshwater archaeological site nominated in 2014), while other nominated marine sanctuaries await an uncertain, multi-year process of further consideration. Protections for one small (5,000 square miles) marine national monument (Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off New England) were restored, but the administration has yet to propose or designate any new marine national monuments. (A notable exception to this disappointing record was the State Department’s negotiation last month of the historic U.N. Ocean Treaty, providing a first-ever framework for nations to collaborate in establishing protected areas in ocean Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction.)

On an issue as urgent and critical to our nation’s future as ocean health, the Biden administration’s bureaucratic slow rolling is unacceptable. While we can hope for his reelection next year, it would be foolish and dangerous to expect such. It is critical that the administration expands and accelerates its ocean protection effort immediately. There is no reason to wait until 2030 to secure the protections urgently needed for U.S. waters — the administration can, and should, act in the next two years to make this happen — a “30×25” goal. Further, the administration should expand the 2030 protected area target from 30 percent to 50 percent — a “50×30” goal. 

Biden’s announcement this week that his administration will increase the protected area in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument region is certainly welcome. But this further highlights the problem of past administrations on ocean protection — they have so far only protected remote ocean areas that are not heavily exploited or significantly threatened. This is low-hanging fruit for politicians. While this may run up their 30 percent goal, it ignores the most pressing ocean conservation imperative — establishing strong, permanent protections in continental shelf ecosystems that are highly productive, heavily exploited, significantly degraded and at substantial risk of further decline. Indeed, this is more politically difficult, but this is what the science says we must do with urgency.

In his Pacific Remote Islands announcement this week, Biden neglected to mention that most of the area is already strongly protected as a marine national monument first established by President Bush in 2009 and expanded by President Obama in 2014. The Biden proposal would add marine sanctuary designation to a 265,000 square mile area left out of the existing monument (Howland, and Baker Islands, Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef), and then add sanctuary designation on top of the existing monument, bringing the entire protected area to 777,000 square miles. It is perplexing that, instead of immediately adding the additional areas to the existing monument using his executive authority, Biden chose a lengthy, less protective sanctuary designation. And similar to other remote Pacific monuments, as there was little pre-existing industrial activity in these distant regions (mainly a few pelagic tuna longliners), the designation will not actually change much and thus will have minimal conservation outcome. Regardless, the Pacific Remote addition will be a positive step. 

But here’s the real problem: To date, while virtually all of the strongly protected areas in U.S. waters are in the Western Pacific region — Papahanaumokuakea, Rose Atoll, Marianas Trench, and Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments, covering a total of approximately 1.2 million square miles— less than 1 percent of marine waters in the rest of U.S. waters are similarly strongly protected. 

Seeking to correct this imbalance, a group of U.S. marine scientists sent a letter to Biden in 2021 urging him to “go big” on ocean protection as part of the administration’s 30×30 initiative by establishing several new marine national monuments in other U.S. waters.

The scientists’ letter — signed by more than 90 university deans, department chairs, distinguished marine professors, agency and independent scientists (including legendary Jane Goodall) — notes that America’s ocean ecosystems are in significant decline due to decades of over exploitation, pollution and climate change; many marine species are threatened or endangered and entire marine ecosystems (e.g., the Arctic Ocean) are severely threatened; and that ocean ecosystems will have difficulty retaining functional integrity throughout the climate crisis this century and urgently need the strongest protections we can provide. 

Thus, in addition to the western Pacific areas already protected, scientists are urging Biden to use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to designate strongly protected, large-scale marine national monuments in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Maine, the Caribbean, as well as Pacific and Atlantic coasts. 

These new marine monuments would permanently prohibit all extractive activities (oil, gas, seabed mining), destructive fishing practices (bottom trawling, etc.), and reduce other environmental risks; they would support low-impact sustainable recreation, tourism, subsistence and scientific research. Most importantly, these marine monuments would protect declining populations of marine mammals, seabirds, fish and all pelagic and seabed ecological functions as much as possible. 

So far, the Biden administration has entirely ignored this imperative.

Who knows what sort of administration we will have after the 2024 election. If it is another administration like the last one, we will lose another four precious years in this urgent effort. The Biden administration cannot afford to delay any longer, and it must act now to secure these ocean protections immediately. 

Speaking about the “fierce urgency of now,” Martin Luther King Jr. warned that “there is such a thing as being too late.” On ocean protection, we are almost at that point. 

We cannot afford to miss perhaps our last best chance to permanently protect our nation’s most critical ocean ecosystems. 

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist and retired professor with the University of Alaska. He is the founder and director of Oasis Earth, an environmental sustainability consulting firm based in Anchorage Alaska. He is also the board chair for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a member of the advisory committee to The Ocean Foundation.

Tags Climate change Fishing Global warming Joe Biden marine life Ocean ocean conservation Overfishing

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