Skip to content

Effective Protections are needed to Restore Marine Life and Ensure a Resilient Future

The world faces the dual challenges of biodiversity loss paired with a rapidly changing climate and many scientists point to the urgent need to increase effective global marine protection to at least 30% by 2030. Known as “30×30,” this worldwide campaign is designed to apply pressure to nations currently negotiating a new agreement on conservation targets post-2020 and is gaining momentum: Over 100 countries now support a global 30% protection target – which – in the ocean – can be achieved through the marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective conservation measures (OECMs).

Against the backdrop of this global conversation, U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to protect and conserve at least 30% of both U.S. lands and ocean areas by 2030 and established the America the Beautiful campaign, a nationwide effort to effectively and equitably achieve this goal.

On December 14th 2021, members of the National Ocean Protection Coalition (NOPC), which includes The Pew Charitable Trusts and Marine Conservation Institute, wrote to Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland regarding the America the Beautiful campaign. The letter emphasizes how MPAs and OECMs, if properly identified and implemented, can play a critical role in the efforts to protect and rejuvenate biodiversity, but also warns that areas improperly attributed toward the 30% target pose a risk and a potential setback for global conservation efforts.

Assessing actual marine protection around the world is a complex effort. For the 60 years since the first US marine protected area was designated in 1957, all marine protected areas were reported the same way and were counted equally in terms of protection. Scientists have only recently published The MPA Guide which provides guidance for defining and classifying the different types of protection and linking them to desired biodiversity outcomes for marine protected areas.

Though first mentioned in 2010, guidance on what defines an OECM didn’t arrive until 2018. OECMs, unlike MPAs, are not primarily set aside for long-term nature conservation but provide comparable long-term biodiversity protections. OECMs have the potential to facilitate and accurately account for local, indigenous, or other protections that fall outside the current scope of conventional protected areas. They also support the integration of meaningful conservation actions into sectors not typically associated with the protection of biodiversity. For example, military closures for security or safety reasons may deliver conservation benefits comparable to a highly or fully protected MPA, even though conservation of nature was not why they were created.

Just this year countries began to self-report OECMs to the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA), the official MPA repository. As of the end of 2021, five countries are already reporting 100 marine OECMs to the WDPA accounting for 0.09% of the global ocean and more are sure to come in 2022.

An international team of scientists recently created standards for marine protected areas that identified likely ecological benefits for different levels of protection. We know that not all levels of regulation achieve enough conservation to stop biodiversity loss. These newly defined OECMs have countries scrutinizing their full range of existing marine managed areas to see what might count towards the now combined MPA/OECM targets.

At this critical moment where time is of the essence, the field must quickly agree on standards for assessing the effectiveness and expected benefits of OECMs. Over the next decade and beyond, OECMs can play a critical role in the rejuvenation of the ocean. However, their misapplication could mean that progress towards 30 by 30 shifts from a victory for biodiversity to a victory for accounting and business as usual.

It is important that US OECMs meet the criteria used internationally by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A well-coordinated effort, which ensures that OECMs in all sectors bring significant benefits to marine ecosystems and the people who depend on them, is critical to the rejuvenation of the ocean. If the US adopts an alternate definition allowing lower levels of biodiversity conservation such as including fisheries management areas which do not effectively protect biodiversity in the long-term, it risks undermining conservation progress and this critical opportunity to reverse the downward trajectory of global marine biodiversity.

The full text of the letter can be found here.

We urge the US to individually evaluate each proposed OECM to assess the following. It must:

  • Have a clear governance mechanism.
  • Be in place for the long term and be designed to provide enduring benefits to ocean biodiversity.
  • Have clear boundaries.
  • Have ongoing monitoring with periodic review to determine whether it continues to provide significant biodiversity protection and resilience (and be no longer considered an OECM if it fails to continue to provide the requisite level of protection).
  • Protect ecologically important species (for example, endangered, threatened, keystone and/or foundational species such as forage species) and their habitats within the area.
  • Prevent existing and reasonably foreseeable threats to the area’s biodiversity, including by:
    • Prohibiting environmentally damaging activities from occurring in the area.
    • Prohibiting human activities, including across multiple sectors, which have demonstrable negative impacts on the area’s ability to conserve biodiversity, including activities that may occur or are foreseeable in the near-term.
  • Take account of the management of adjacent areas.
Grorud-Colvert, K. et al. The MPA Guide: A framework to achieve global goals for the ocean. 1215, (2021).