On January 27, President Biden took historic action to protect 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030, launching the most ambitious conservation plan in history. Known as “30x30”, the goal aims to provide an inclusive and bold vision for safeguarding America’s ocean, air, water, food, and communities. There are many ways the Administration could set out to achieve this goal in our ocean.
Scientists have long recommended that we protect and conserve at least 30% of the planet by 2030, and global momentum behind the goal has grown quickly in response to the overwhelming evidence that our planet is facing an existential crisis. Consider that over one million species are currently at risk of extinction worldwide. We lose a football field’s worth of nature every 30 seconds in the United States. And two-thirds of the ocean—once thought to be limitless—have been severely altered by human activity.
The scale of these challenges is immense, and we will need everyone at the table to solve them. President Biden’s executive order not only committed to 30x30, but also launched a process for broad stakeholder engagement from agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, Tribes, states, territories, local officials, scientists, and others. This is a strong recognition that the path to 30x30 must reflect our nation’s values, and the needs of all communities and peoples across the country. By supporting locally led conservation, honoring the sovereignty of Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, working toward a more equitable and inclusive vision for nature conservation, and ensuring our efforts are guided by science, we now have an opportunity to address multiple issues—the biodiversity crisis, climate crisis, environmental justice and massive disparities in access to nature—through our work to achieve the 30x30 goal.
In the ocean, the primary tools for achieving 30x30 are marine protected areas (MPAs). Like national parks on land, MPAs are proven conservation measures that take human pressures off of certain areas, giving degraded areas a chance to heal and helping to retain the intact, healthy ecosystems we have left. Science has shown that when well-protected MPAs are put in place, fish and their habitats bounce back, our ocean is more resilient in the face of future changes, and people benefit—both directly through jobs, tourism revenue, biomedical discoveries and enhancements to fisheries, as well as indirectly where protected nearshore habitats buffer communities from bacterial pathogens and storm damage, and provide long-term carbon storage, among many other benefits. Human health and well-being is also known to be higher in proximity to MPAs. Research has shown that well-designed and well-protected MPAs are more effective than other actions (like fisheries management or lightly protected MPAs) at achieving these outcomes.
In the United States, the ocean 30x30 goal is within reach. We have one of the largest ocean territories in the world—exceeding the area of our land—and 23% of that ocean territory is currently located in well-protected MPAs. Yet 99% of these protected areas are found in the remote Pacific Ocean, and only one percent of our waters outside this region are well-protected in MPAs. Protecting 30%—only 7% more—of America’s ocean presents an opportunity to strengthen our domestic MPA network, and ensure it is representative of the vibrant diversity of habitats and ecosystems found in U.S. waters.
President Biden’s executive order did not grant new authority or automatically designate new protected areas. Rather, it set a high ambition to use existing authorities to meet today’s conservation needs. There are several existing tools and processes that the Biden Administration may use to designate additional MPAs:
- The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate marine sanctuaries in areas of the ocean with special national significance in order to protect, maintain, and restore natural, historical, cultural and archeological resources.
- The Antiquities Act allows the president to set aside areas of the ocean for the strong and broad protection of “objects of historic or scientific interest” and has arguably become the most important federal statute for large-scale marine conservation.
- The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act provides for the nation’s only system of protected areas dedicated solely to the conservation of wildlife.
- The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, while primarily used to promote the development of oil and gas in federal waters, contains a provision, Section 12(a), that allows the president to withdraw areas of the U.S. ocean from being offered for leasing, thus protecting them from the harmful effects of offshore oil and gas development.
Through these and other existing tools, the Biden Administration has the opportunity to protect an additional 7% (835,000 square kilometers) of our ocean and simultaneously advance ocean-based climate solutions, biodiversity conservation, and environmental justice goals.
The United States has a strong track record of solving environmental problems, and a strong legacy of ocean conservation. By protecting 30% of our land and ocean by 2030, we can help slow the loss of nature, ameliorate the impacts of climate change, and ensure all Americans—no matter their economic status, race, or ethnicity—have access to the natural world. Most importantly, we can ensure the legacy of a healthy ocean for generations to come.