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. In response, U.S. scientists on Monday sent a letter to the president urging him to “go big” on ocean protection as part of the “30×30” initiative.
Many marine scientists are concerned that the administration’s “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” plan released last month fell short on ocean protection, and it made no mention of establishing Marine National Monuments.
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 the Arctic sea ice ecosystem), are 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.
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.
Science has done its job identifying anthropogenic risks and impacts to our oceans. Now policymakers, namely President Biden, must act on that science to restore and protect these vital national assets for our common future. As a candidate, Biden committed to a federal policy based on science, and now he must make good on that commitment for ocean protection.
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). However, only 1% of continental state waters, and 0.01% of continental federal waters are considered strongly protected. Clearly, to reach the 30% goal, the administration must strongly protect more continental shelf waters.
In addition to improving sustainable management of ocean ecosystems in general, the scientists urged the Biden administration 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 National Monuments should protect large marine ecosystems and at a minimum prohibit 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.
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.
Scientists from all disciplines joined the letter in hope that Biden will now act on the science. We cannot afford to miss perhaps our last best chance to permanently protect our nation’s most critical offshore ecosystems.