by Julia Singer
The world urgently needs environmental policy reform. Making federal policy changes within the United States holds the potential to prevent further irreversible harm to the environment by this nation. According to the 2019 United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, around 1 million species are threatened with extinction, and that number is growing rapidly. As defined under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, 150 globally endangered or threatened species currently live in U.S. coastal waters. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, federal law protects 23% of U.S. oceans, but critics of current protections note that 99% of these protected areas are in the remote Pacific and do not effectively preserve biodiversity across the country.
Conserving oceans is essential for a variety of reasons. First, oceans play a critical role in mitigating the effects of climate change. According to Oceans Unite, global oceans have absorbed 30% of the excess carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere and 90% of the heat related to anthropogenic emissions. The oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to ocean acidification, which can dissolve the calcium-carbonate shells of marine organisms, stress sensitive species including corals that are not resilient to increased acidity, and harm higher trophic-level organisms that rely on more sensitive photosynthesizers for food. Additionally, oceans are vital to supporting humans by providing protein-rich food to 3 billion people and approximately 260 million jobs worldwide in the marine fisheries sector. Oceans play a critical role in the global economy, not only through fisheries but also through tourism and transportation.
A global movement to increase marine protected areas (MPAs) has been gaining traction in recent years. International organizations, such as the Marine Conservation Institute and Campaign for Nature, are pursuing the goal of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. In an executive order released on January 27, 2021, President Biden implemented a similar domestic goal of conserving at least 30% of the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by 2030. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced this policy, commonly known as “30×30,” in Congress within the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act (H.R. 8632- 116th Congress). President Biden may choose to achieve this goal through existing executive authority under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Antiquities Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, or he may push for new regulatory tools. While the specifications are not yet determined, the policy impacts of conserving 30% of oceans by 2030 have received mixed reactions from different industries, particularly in the conservation and fishery management sectors.
Marine Protected Areas around the world. (Source: Marine Conservation Insitute)
The 30×30 initiative is generally well-received by ocean conservation organizations both domestically and internationally. According to Oceans United, increasing protected areas will help to build resilience to the effects of climate change, including severe storms, ocean acidification and rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Protecting biodiversity is also a primary goal of 30×30, and MPAs can provide safe areas for fish to mate, spawn and live without the threat of fishing practices. Research has found that MPAs are effective at protecting large predatory species, which are vital to ecosystem function.
30×30 could also promote environmental justice within ocean conservation. Policymakers must consider the intersection between social justice and ocean conservation, such as the impacts of sea-level rise and increased storm severity from climate change. Communities with higher poverty rates may be hit harder by these environmental shifts because they have less money and resources to relocate or rebuild. Low-income communities also lack the funds to implement preventive sea walls and other infrastructure that wealthier communities can build, leading to a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged groups of people. The protections that 30×30 would require aim to mitigate these negative impacts by decreasing the effects of climate change and stopping the progression of potentially harmful environmental changes.
A significant concern about increasing MPAs is their economic impacts. Studies were conducted at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, both in the waters surrounding Hawai’i. Researchers found no negative impacts on the longline fishing catch rates associated with the expansion of these MPAs. However, the fishing industry has still resisted the implementation of blanket regulations and ambitious conservation goals. Many commercial fishermen believe that fisheries should only be managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), last reauthorized in 2007. The MSA was successful in restoring depleted fish stocks and enforcing sustainable fishing. The problem with comparing the efficacy of the MSA to 30×30 is that they have different policy goals; the MSA aims to protect fisheries, while 30×30 aims to protect biodiversity and ocean ecosystems. However, because of this difference, 30×30 would be a beneficial addition to current MSA regulations.
Additionally, some commercial fishermen worry that imposing too many restrictions will decrease climate resilience within their industry. As anthropogenic influences cause changes in sea level, ocean acidity, and water temperature, fish may migrate to new areas. Fishermen are forced to shift their typical routes to continue maintaining a viable business, and some are concerned that increased MPAs may eventually cripple the industry by limiting their ability to adapt. 30×30 could also increase the importing of fish from other parts of the world, which not only harms local industry but also has much higher emissions than buying locally. However, a proposed solution could charge scientists, such as those that contribute to MSA decisions, with managing fisheries instead of implementing additional regulations. This would allow experts to adapt protections and limitations to the current needs of the ecosystem while considering the needs of those who rely on fishing for their food and livelihoods.
The 30×30 initiative has very worthy intentions and aims to address an urgent issue. While this policy has the potential for success, industry stakeholders and scientists must be consulted to ensure oceans are regulated in a way that benefits the environment, members of industry, and the nation as a whole.
Interested in making small changes to help the oceans? Click here to find out 10 ways to reduce your negative impact.