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The U.S. Wants to Save 30% of the Ocean. But Real Conservation Will Take More than Numbers—Here’s How

How to address catastrophic climate disruption? How to approach our treatment of nature? These are important choices that the US faces. For over 150 years, American conservation efforts have seesawed between strict protection of unique, natural places and an approach that can be summarized as ‘multiple use’ or ‘sustainable use’.  Thinkers and conservationists like Henry David Thoreau, Chief Seattle, John Muir, George Perkins Marsh, Mardy Murie, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Sylvia Earle, and Gaylord Nelson have all debated what conservation really means and what role it plays in our economy. Do we allow for “necessary uses” under strict provisions designed to make resource extraction in natural areas more or less sustainable over time? Or do we keep areas in their “natural state,” and minimize human impacts?  On land, for example, do we manage forests for lumber production and transform landscapes into pasture? Or do we leave land “untouched,” as in wilderness areas or national parks? In the ocean, do we allow fishing managed for maximum sustainable yield or do we create areas where little or no fishing or extraction of any kind are allowed to preserve the functioning of natural ecosystems?

Too often, these longstanding debates over conservation excluded the concerns, rights and knowledge of the original conservationists of this continent –the Indigenous people for whom this had been a homeland more than 20,000 years before white Europeans arrived in America and set about subduing nature and despoiling its resources. More recently, with Indigenous voices at the table, we are asking important questions like “Nature conservation for whom?” (who can access nature and how are certain demographics excluded?”);  “Nature decided by who?” (who decides what is conserved and to what degree?); and “Conservation decisions guided by whose knowledge?” (what weight do we give traditional Indigenous knowledge vs. Western science, and how do we even begin to define “wild” or “untouched” wilderness on a continent shaped for millennia by Indigenous stewardship practices?).

Summed up under the rubric of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLC), these questions are vital; they begin the work of restoring credence and voice to first peoples after a long and ongoing history of abuse, colonization, and erasure. But including Indigenous nations in the conservation debates is more than paying lip service to social and environmental justice. It is necessary, if we are to rebalance this blue planet. Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the world’s population, but they are responsible for the conservation of more than a quarter of the world’s land area either formally or informally, and according to National Geographic, 80% of the world’s biodiversity. In short, big conservation, at least on land, needs the help of, cooperation with, and knowledge of Indigenous people. Where Indigenous people are in charge of conservation, that’s “where the biodiversity is.” These are the voices that can guide us toward healing our relationship with the natural world.

The ocean is a somewhat different story. Coastal indigenous people were some of the earliest casualties of European colonists, warfare, land expropriation and disease. There are few coastal tribes left in New England, more in the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and west coast, and many more in Alaska. Where tribes have treaty right access to the ocean, those rights are unassailable. Where tribes still live on the coast, those voices should be heard and honored, as in the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary proposal in central California. And where US ocean management decisions impact the daily livelihoods of indigenous Americans like the Unangan (Aleuts) or others in the Bering sea, those interests merit high priority.

What, then, is the current conservation ethos in the US? During his primary campaign, candidate Biden committed to setting the US on the path of ‘conserving’ 30% of the nation’s lands, waters, and oceans by 2030 in response to a global push to counteract the impacts of climate change and loss of biodiversity. The “30×30” movement has gained international support and is likely to become international policy at the next Convention on Biological Diversity meeting. To follow up on this pledge, President Biden released a general roadmap for US conservation in the next decade called Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful. But what exactly would be the balance of sustainable use vs. strict protection under the plan; what would be counted as conserved area in the 30% goal; and how permanent those protections would have to be were all left undefined.

Today, Marine Conservation Institute is working to help the administration make those choices. We are using the scientifically rigorous framework of the MPA Guide (recently published in the peer reviewed journal Science and integrated into our Marine Protection Atlas) to assess existing protected areas in US oceans. Using those criteria, approximately 23% of all US waters (continental and territorial) are either highly or fully protected and implemented. Unfortunately, over 95% of that area is in the Western and Central Pacific ocean. Hence, most marine ecosystems in US waters have very little or no protection at all.

For example, dozens of unique underwater mountains—seamounts—off the coast of California have limited protections though they harbor unique marine life from the deep sea to the surface. In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, treasured as the only warm water coral reef ecosystem in the US, only 6.5% of its area qualifies for fully or highly protected, not enough to prevent its downward spiral. Most other marine sanctuaries around the US also have very low levels of real protection against anything other than offshore drilling. To really protect biodiversity and provide climate resilience for the whole US, we must increase protections (i.e., usually by limiting fishing) in existing but weakly protected places, and create new protections in other regions to achieve representation of different ecosystems.

The upcoming decisions that the Biden administration makes to implement its Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful plan are hugely consequential to marine life, fishermen, coastal communities, and people whose jobs depend on coastal recreation and tourism. At Marine Conservation Institute, we are asking the administration to take some critical steps to make sure that the 30% goal is met in a way that brings tangible marine conservation and human social and economic benefits. Achieving 30% by including areas that aren’t really protected or aren’t representative of important ecosystems won’t get us the benefits we need, including helping to fight climate change with nature based solutions. We should not claim progress or declare victory by including weak, ineffective efforts and protections in an effort to achieve numerical progress. We are asking the administration to ensure that the Conserving and Restoring the America the Beautiful plan includes:

  1. Higher levels of protection that produce tangible conservation benefits such as rebuilding populations (age, sex, size, abundance, etc.) and climate resilience. Lower levels of protection like managing for sustainably fished populations do not.
  2. Use scientifically rigorous criteria (e.g., MPA Guide or Blue Parks criteria) to steer the assessment of what conservation measures will work and not work in the ocean. Marine Conservation Institute’s MPAtlas which is now being updated with detailed MPA assessments could be used to assess the quality, quantity, and representativeness of managed areas in US oceans.
  3. Representativeness is critical. If we protect 30% of US Pacific ocean areas, that doesn’t help marine life in other areas with very low or nonexistent levels of protection.
  4. The Atlas of Conservation which the administration will use to track progress on the 30% goal should be transparent in categorizing levels of protection. The principle goal(s) each protected area addresses (i.e., biodiversity, climate resilience, more equitable access to nature, jobs, etc. ) is key to understanding whether we are making real progress or paper progress.

There is no time to waste on paper progress.