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5 Ways the Ocean Justice Strategy Will Improve Conservation

5 Ways the Ocean Justice Strategy Will Improve Conservation

The Biden administration’s Ocean Justice Strategy will serve ocean conservation, and broader conservation efforts, by elevating the importance of ocean justice within the federal government.

Overhead view of surfer paddling out to a wave
A surfer struggles to paddle against strong currents and through large breaking waves created by an approaching storm that will affect Southern California, January 4, 2024, in Huntington Beach. (Getty/Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

On December 8, 2023, the Biden administration announced the first-ever U.S. Ocean Justice Strategy (OJS). Building upon the White House’s Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP), released earlier in 2023, the OJS is the first federal policy to define ocean justice. The strategy specifically addresses the challenges that ocean justice communities face and integrates ocean justice into the federal government. Together, the publication of the OJS and the OCAP demonstrates that the Biden administration recognizes the value of the ocean as a critical tool for fighting climate change, as well as the need to center the voices and priorities of communities that, financially or culturally, depend on the ocean.

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The OJS was created with significant input from stakeholders, including consultations with territorial governments and Native Hawaiian organizations, a formal consultation process with Tribal nations, and a public comment period that garnered more than 16,000 comments. The release of the OJS was then met with broad support from the environmental community. The strategy builds upon previous actions to support racial and environmental justice, including multiple executive orders, the creation of the Justice40 and America the Beautiful initiatives, and the Ocean Climate Action Plan.

This column describes five ways that the OJS incorporates ocean justice into the federal government.

1. Federally defines ‘ocean justice’ and ‘ocean justice communities’

These are the first federal definitions of these terms and are based on Executive Order 14096’s definition of “environmental justice”; they further establish ocean justice as part of federal environmental justice efforts overall. Providing concrete definitions for the terms “ocean justice” and “ocean justice communities” reinforces the importance and legitimacy of these issues and the experiences of these communities. Defining the terms also makes it easier to include them in federal guidelines, metrics, and goals.

The definition of ocean justice is “the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of income, race, color, national origin, Tribal affiliation, or disability, in Federal Agency decision-making and other Federal activities related to the ocean.” Ocean justice communities are those “communities with environmental justice concerns that rely on the ocean and Great Lakes for economic, cultural, spiritual, and recreational purposes, and food security … not limited to communities adjacent to shorelines, but extend to all communities that have economic, cultural, historical, or spiritual ties to the ocean and are experiencing ocean-related environmental justice concerns.”

2. Facilitates improved ocean access and community engagement

The OJS directs agencies to participate in meaningful engagement with communities, specifically ocean justice communities, that are affected by agency actions related to the ocean. Community engagement leads to better results, and improvements based on the OJS could include: engaging with communities as early as possible; collaborating more with trusted local organizations in ocean justice communities; providing more time for public input; simplifying processes and providing support so that communities can obtain federal support; communicating in additional languages and formats; using additional methods for feedback; and increasing transparency about how feedback is used. This builds on the work of multiple executive orders and the Ocean Climate Action Plan.

The OJS also recommends supporting the improvement of educational ocean content in schools. On federal lands, the OJS recommends improving coastal access for people with disabilities, such as with ramps at beach entrances, and directs the White House Ocean Policy Committee—the author of the OJS—to collaborate with states and territories on coastal access, as well as work to improve coastal access on federal land.

3. Promotes a more inclusive use of information sources

The OJS directs agencies to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into ocean decision-making, data collection, and research, building on past efforts to include Indigenous knowledge in the federal government’s work. The OJS also recommends including ocean justice communities in federal decision-making, as well as that research efforts incorporate traditional, local, and historical knowledge. The White House recognizes that decision-making improves with additional evidence and understands that utilizing Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge benefits both nature and society.

4. Fosters a more inclusive workforce

The OJS includes multiple suggestions for how to make the federal workforce more inclusive. The country and the federal workforce overall may have comparable racial diversity, but that does not hold true for high-level positions, or for every agency, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was 79 percent white in fiscal year 2021. The OJS suggests advertising ocean workforce positions in a more inclusive manner and strives to improve recruitment and retention of employees from disadvantaged groups, including ocean justice communities. The OJS also recommends considering hiring people to work near the ocean, such as in the U.S. territories, and paying junior staff—such as interns and those in entry-level positions—better. These efforts build upon Executive Order 14035.

5. Establishes a whole-of-government approach to ocean justice

The OJS directs the federal government to take ocean justice into account in agency actions. This historic step could lead to better communication of information, more meaningful community engagement, improved interagency coordination, more inclusive advisory group development and employment, more equitable coastal access, and increased access to funding for ocean justice communities. The OJS suggests that agencies create ocean justice guidelines and/or metrics; it also directs the White House Ocean Policy Committee to create sample metrics for agency use.

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The Ocean Justice Strategy will serve ocean conservation, and the broader conservation field, by elevating the importance of ocean justice within the federal government. The Biden administration must capitalize on this momentum by implementing the OJS as soon as possible; evaluating its efficacy to ensure equity throughout its processes; and continuing to build upon the OJS and the OCAP, such as by releasing the National Strategy for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. The OJS is a historic framework that creates a foundation to guide the integration of ocean justice and more equitable policies and processes across the federal government.

The authors would like to thank the following people for their contributions: Sharon Ferguson, Nicole Gentile, and Meghan Miller.

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Mariel Lutz

Research Associate, Conservation Policy

Kat So

Campaign Manager, Energy and Environment Campaigns

Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow


Conservation Policy

We work to protect our lands, waters, ocean, and wildlife to address the linked climate and biodiversity crises. This work helps to ensure that all people can access and benefit from nature and that conservation and climate investments build a resilient, just, and inclusive economy.

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