President Joe Biden’s laudable Jan. 27 executive order, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” calls for (among other things) conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. However, the administration’s “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” plan released last month calls solely for ‘voluntary, local conservation efforts,’ and falls far short on ocean protection.
In response, a large group of noted U.S. scientists sent a letter this month to the president urging him to “go big” on ocean protection as part of the “30×30” initiative. The core ask of the letter is that, in order for the administration to reach its 30% goal for ocean protection, it must establish strongly protected Marine National Monuments in large federal ocean ecosystems (3-200 miles offshore) in Alaskan and other federal continental shelf waters. In Alaska, while most federal lands enjoy permanent protection (parks, refuges, monuments, etc.), no federal offshore waters receive comparable protective status, despite comprising half of the nation’s entire shoreline and three-fourths of its total continental shelf.
The scientists’ letter — signed by more than 90 university deans, department chairs, distinguished marine professors, agency and independent scientists (including legendary Dr. Jane Goodall) — states that America’s ocean ecosystems are in significant decline due to decades of over exploitation, climate change, acidification and pollution. Many marine species are threatened or endangered, and entire marine ecosystems (such as Arctic sea ice and coral reef ecosystems), are severely threatened. Ocean ecosystems will have difficulty retaining functional integrity throughout the climate crisis this century, and these ecosystems need the strongest protections we can provide.
Many marine scientists recall that the ‘voluntary, local’ approach was a spectacular failure in the Obama administration’s National Marine Sanctuary designation process, ultimately leading to the designation of only three small historic shipwreck sites in freshwater (the Potomac River, Lake Michigan, and Lake Ontario). The most effective ocean conservation achieved by the Bush and Obama administrations has been through federal designation, by executive order, of large-scale Marine National Monuments. That this was not mentioned as an option in the Biden plan worries many ocean scientists and conservationists.
As concluded in Environment America’s 2021 “New Life for the Oceans” report, the science on this is perfectly clear — fully protected Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) protect and enhance biodiversity; increase ecosystem health; increase biomass, abundance, and diversity of marine species; and mitigate impacts of climate change.
The Marine Conservation Institute’s 2021 “Sea States” report concludes that, although roughly 23.8% of U.S. waters are considered “strongly protected,” virtually all of that is in the remote central and western Pacific — Papahanaumokuakea, Rose Atoll, Marianas Trench, and Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments, covering a total of approximately 1.2 million square miles, first established by President George W. Bush, then expanded by President Obama.
However, only 1% of more heavily exploited continental state waters, and 0.01% of continental federal waters are considered strongly protected. Clearly, to reach the 30% goal, the administration will have to protect significantly more continental shelf waters. Essentially, Presidents Bush and Obama did the easy part on this, leaving the more difficult and critical work of protecting highly productive, highly threatened continental shelf ecosystems to President Biden.
In addition to improving sustainable management of America’s oceans in general, the scientists urge President Biden to evaluate and establish strongly protected Marine National Monuments (via executive authority under the Antiquities Act), to protect critical large-scale, federal offshore ecosystems. Marine National Monuments are the most direct, durable, and strongest policy instrument available to achieve the 30% protection goal for the oceans, and they should legally withstand any effort by a future federal administration to weaken them.
These marine monuments should, at a minimum, prohibit all extractive activities (oil, gas, seabed mining), destructive fishing practices (bottom trawling, etc.), and significantly reduce marine pollution (plastic debris, oil, hazardous chemicals, undersea noise, etc.); and they should support and enhance low-impact sustainable recreation, tourism, subsistence and scientific research. Importantly, the marine monuments must protect populations of marine mammals, seabirds, fish, and all pelagic and seabed ecological functions as much as possible. Again, the goal is to give these critical ocean ecosystems the best chance possible to survive the climate chaos this century.
The scientists urged the administration to prioritize highly threatened, productive continental shelf waters for protection as Marine National Monuments, including in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Maine, the Caribbean, and Pacific and Atlantic coasts. They recommend that each marine monument appoint a stakeholder advisory committee, a scientific advisory committee, and develop a management plan to advance the overall goal of long-term ecosystem restoration and protection.
Science has done its job identifying anthropogenic risks and impacts to our oceans. Now President Biden must act on that science to restore and protect these vital national assets for our common future.
Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist in Anchorage, Alaska. A former marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks (he resigned his tenured professorship in 2010 when university administrators attempted to restrict his academic freedom) and former Alaska commercial fisherman, Steiner is founder and director of the nonprofit Oasis Earth, and member of the board of advisors for The Ocean Foundation and the Board of Directors of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.