From fishermen to fish to reefs, the theme of this year’s United Nations World Oceans Day, “Life and Livelihoods,” connects to just about every aspect of ocean health and coastal economies. After all, ocean health affects industries and flood resilience our ability to sequester carbon. But how do we secure ocean health? A global community of scientists agree that the foolproof way to support ecosystems and their services is to conserve them.
Research backs them up. A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature outlines three main benefits to protecting ocean areas: preserving biodiversity, increasing the yield of fisheries and storing marine carbon. Global coordination, as opposed to independent national action, authors say, has the potential to double the effectiveness of conservation efforts. The body of research backing up the economic benefits of marine protected areas (MPAs) is broad. One meta-analysis found a 670 percent increase in the biomass of whole fish assemblages in no-take marine reserves compared to unprotected areas outside their boundaries.
Dramatic evidence like this spurred the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to recommend a global target of 2030 for global protection of 30 percent of the planet — also called 30x30 — last year. Today, just about 7 percent of the globe’s oceans are protected — with less than three percent highly protected. Still, more than 70 nations have shown support for 30x30.
Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and co-author of the Nature study, responded in a statement:
“If adopted, this target could achieve what our children have been calling on governments to do — listen to the science. If we are to stay below 1.5°C, prevent the extinction of one million species and the collapse of our life support system, we need to protect our intact wilderness, and ensure at least 30% of our land and oceans are protected by 2030. But this is the floor, not the ceiling. Now every government on earth must get behind this bold mission and drive through a global agreement for nature this year.”
While a few states have made 30x30 commitments of their own, the U.S. as a whole has only recently come on board. Early into his term, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that mandates conserving at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
Early in May, agencies such as the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture published Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful 2021, which outlines the nation’s approach to conservation — focusing, in part, on collaboration, inclusion and local efforts, and recognizing the need to establish a shared understanding of what counts as conserved. Agencies plan to create an American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, establishing baseline information on the lands and waters currently being conserved and restored.
Currently, about 26 percent of U.S. waters are protected by the MPA designation, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. Last year, for example, the Trump administration opened the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing — a move scientists like Sala emphasize hurts the fishing industry in the long-run. Biden has said he will review Trump’s decision.
Perhaps a more relevant figure to the establishment of resilient oceans is 3 percent — the proportion of highly protected U.S. waters that prohibit any extraction of resources. Most of these areas lie within two large Pacific Ocean MPAs — Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Outside of those two sites, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts the amount of U.S. waters that are highly protected at 0.1 percent.
The road to 30 percent protected waters is more complicated than labeling additional marine areas as protected. NOAA’s MPA Center details a broader sense of ocean conservation that puts the focus on quality of conservation and management, as well as connectedness to context, protected or unprotected, with beneficial and harmful effects spilling over.
Given the complexity of managing MPAs, the United States could designate 30 percent of U.S. waters as protected and still miss the mark when it comes to the longevity of marine-related life and livelihoods.
Some of the opportunities NOAA identifies for improving management effectiveness are standardizing assessment tools; synthesizing data about accomplishments, gaps and challenges across MPAs; considering human uses and values of waters; accounting for climate resiliency and adaptation; and improving public communication about MPA management.
Yet again, coordination of efforts is the focus, a principle Sala’s recent results support. For the U.S., this must take place amongst states, as well as with other nations. Even after World Oceans Day 2021 passes us by, conservation leaders should find it hard to forget this need for unity. Our oceans are connected, as are our pollution and climate challenges.
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