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Coral reef around Gambier Islands, French Polynesia, South Pacific. Acropora corals are one of the primary reef builders in world's oceans. (Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Biden Administration Must Expand and Accelerate Its Ocean Conservation Effort

On an issue as urgent and critical to our nation's future as ocean health, the Biden administration's bureaucratic slow-rolling is unacceptable.

Rick Steiner

America's oceans are in serious decline due to decades of mismanagement, overexploitation, climate change, acidification, habitat damage, and pollution. Many marine species are threatened or endangered, and entire marine ecosystems (Arctic sea ice, coral reefs, mangroves, etc.), are severely threatened. Ocean ecosystems will have increasing difficulty retaining functional integrity through the climate crisis this century, and these ecosystems urgently need the strongest protections we can provide.

We cannot afford to miss perhaps our last best chance to permanently protect our nation's most critical ocean ecosystems in time to save them for the future.

Although President Biden's laudable Jan. 27, 2021 Executive Order "Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad" calls for conserving 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 ("30x30"), so far little has come from this pledge. 

To date, the administration has designated only one new National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) - 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 mi2) 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.  And although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted a public comment period last year on the 30x30 ocean effort, the agency is now proposing to establish an advisory council on the issue, a process that would only further delay substantive action.

On an issue as urgent and critical to our nation's future as ocean health, the Biden administration's bureaucratic slow-rolling is unacceptable. We can hope for the election of an administration in 2024 that supports ocean protection, but it would be foolish and dangerous to plan on such.  Thus, it is imperative 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 "30x24" goal.  And many feel the administration should expand the 2030 target from 30% to 50%—a "50x30" goal. 

Internationally, although the Biden administration just announced its new "Ocean Conservation Pledge," this initiative asks countries to commit to a 30x30 goal only in domestic waters within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), ignoring international waters ("Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction"). On protecting international waters, which cover almost 60% of the global ocean, the Biden administration remains either non-committal, or strategically ambiguous.

The administration can and must, at long last, join the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and submit both UNCLOS and the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (which the U.S. signed, but did not ratify), for Senate ratification. This would give the U.S. a long-awaited full voice in international negotiations regarding ocean conservation.  While it is unclear that enough Senate Republicans would embrace U.S. accession to these international conventions, it is time to try again.

For waters within the U.S. EEZ, a group of U.S. marine scientists sent a letter to President Biden last year urging him to "go big" on ocean protection by designating new Marine National Monuments via executive authority. The letter is signed by over ninety university deans, department chairs, distinguished marine professors, agency and independent scientists (including the legendary Dr. Jane Goodall).

A recent assessment by the Marine Conservation Institute found that virtually all of the "strongly protected" marine areas in the U.S. are in the Western Pacific—(Papahanaumokuakea, Rose Atoll, Marianas Trench, and Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monuments, covering a total of approximately 1.2 million mi2), but less than 1% of marine waters in the rest of U.S. are similarly strongly protected.  This stunning imbalance must be corrected.

In addition to the Western Pacific protections, the administration must now strongly protect at least 30% of the productive and threatened waters within each of the other seven U.S. marine management areas—North Pacific (Alaska), Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, Mid-Atlantic, New England, and Caribbean.

Marine National Monuments are the quickest, most durable, and strongest policy instrument available to achieve this protection target for the oceans.  These should legally withstand any effort by an unsympathetic future administration to weaken or eliminate them.  Accordingly, marine scientists are urging the Biden administration to designate large-scale Marine National Monuments in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, Gulf of Mexico, Gulf of Maine, the Caribbean, and Pacific and Atlantic coasts. 

These new marine monuments must, at a minimum, permanently prohibit all extractive activities (oil, gas, seabed mining), destructive fishing practices (bottom trawling, etc.), significantly reduce marine pollution (plastic debris, oil, hazardous chemicals, undersea noise, etc.), and manage other environmental risks. They should support low-impact sustainable recreation, tourism, subsistence and scientific research.  Most importantly, the marine monuments must protect populations of marine mammals, seabirds, fish, and all pelagic and seabed ecological functions as much as possible. 

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 years in this urgent effort. The Biden administration cannot afford to delay any longer, and must act now to secure these ocean protections by 2024. 

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 in time to save them for the future.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
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Rick Steiner

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist in Anchorage Alaska, he was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010, and consults internationally on marine environmental issues. He is Founder and Director of Oasis Earth, member of the Board of Advisors for The Ocean Foundation, member of the Board of Directors of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and author of Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril:

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