CAP Co-Hosted Event Centers Ocean Justice

During National Ocean Month, the Center for American Progress and our partners advocated for equitable, just ocean policies that center historically marginalized communities.

Ocean wave
A wave at Los Cerritos beach on June 3, 2023, in La Paz, Mexico. (Getty/Alfredo Martinez/)

The Biden administration recently proclaimed June National Ocean Month. The proclamation states that, in addition to offshore wind, port electrification, and coastal ecosystem conservation, environmental justice must be placed at the center of the White House’s ocean strategy.

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But environmental justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion must be incorporated into ocean work year round, not just during Ocean Month. The Center for American Progress incorporates these principles into its work and advances ocean justice in policy by centering the voices of communities on the front lines of climate change. As a founding member of the Ocean Justice Forum, CAP worked with partners “to create a consensus-based, ambitious ocean policy agenda that promotes the goals of economic, racial, climate, and environmental justice.” As part of the America the Beautiful for All Coalition, CAP supports policies that respect Indigenous people and center historically marginalized communities. And CAP helps tell the stories of Indigenous leaders in the environmental movement through its “Under the Pala Pala” video interview series.

Watch the video

A wave of ocean justice is rising

The Biden administration has prioritized advancing conservation policies that center equity and justice, as set forth in the White House’s Justice40 initiative, America the Beautiful initiative, and recently released Ocean Climate Action Plan. The administration has also directed an interagency working group to develop an Ocean Justice Strategy to identify barriers and opportunities to fully integrate environmental justice principles into the federal government’s ocean activities; it is currently gathering public input with which to develop the strategy. Each of these opportunities demonstrates that now is a critical moment to advocate for ocean justice as part of the broader conservation movement.

On June 7, 2023, CAP—along with Azul and Urban Ocean Lab—hosted the symposium “Upwell: A Wave of Ocean Justice,” with support from Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Ocean Defense Initiative, and Green 2.0. CAP also premiered multiple videos highlighting members of the America the Beautiful for All Coalition.

Watch CAP’s video series on America the Beautiful.

Front-line advocates of the America the Beautiful for All Coalition recently came to Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials to support a just and equitable implementation of President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful” initiative. The Center for American Progress interviewed 10 of them.

The event centered justice in the ocean movement by bringing together people from across the country to affirm that the inclusion of historically marginalized voices is crucial to effective ocean conservation efforts and to discuss how to foster it. Speakers and panelists shared how their identities affect and inform their work, as well as how including their voices and viewpoints in ocean work helps achieve more equitable outcomes.

[T]o see what has happened in seven years, to see how we’ve gone from, 'What can people of color do for the ocean movement?' to, 'What is ocean justice? How do we do this just, how do we center people, how do we center human rights?' is a dream come true. Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, founder and executive director of Azul

A deeper dive into ocean justice

Angelo Villagomez, senior fellow at CAP, opened the Upwell event by defining ocean justice and highlighting the importance of inclusivity in equitable use of the ocean:

[W]e need ocean justice—where ocean stewardship, social inclusion, and justice intersect. Ocean justice means ensuring that the benefits and burdens of ocean use and protection are shared equitably and inclusively among all people. … we know that the who and the how of conservation are just as important as the where and the what. 

After these remarks, Johanna Lee, staff attorney at Global Labor Justice, gave a presentation titled “Freedom of Association at Sea: Advancing Justice in the Distant-Water Fishing Industry.” She spoke on the dual issues of illegal fishing and forced labor in the seafood supply chain, as well as to the human toll of the distant-water fishing industry. A critical solution to this, she said, is upholding the fundamental labor rights of migrant fishers, who make up the majority of the distant-water fishing workforce but face systemic discrimination and exploitation.

The first panel discussion took place later in the afternoon and explored “Redefining Conservation Success: A New Wave of Ocean Climate Leadership.” Participants discussed how the next generation of ocean leaders is redefining conservation success; engaging with front-line communities in novel ways; and addressing the dual climate and nature crises by focusing on the who and how of conservation, with the goal of a post-30×30 conservation framework. The panelists also discussed the barriers that keep people of color from joining or staying in the ocean justice movement and how to increase hiring and retention.

[W]e need more people like us in leadership positions … I’ve noticed there's a lot of folks like me as fellows and as early career people, but then when you look at your leadership, it is a lot less diverse. Olivia Lopez, senior specialist, climate policy, at the Ocean Conservancy

The second panel, “Talking Ocean Policy: What Makes It Just?”, explored just ocean policy and how to define it. Groups including the Ocean Justice Forum and the Ocean Equity Collective, some of whose members participated in Upwell, are examples of coalitions led by people of color that are at the forefront of inclusive ocean conservation. Ocean justice communities are pursuing equitable and just ocean policy that recognizes both the history of inequity and communities’ role in the future of ocean conservation.

Anytime you're going to say renewable energy, say 'justly sourced.' It matters where the source material comes from. If we don’t say that, we simply replace the renewable energy sector with the oil and gas sector. It is the same extraction process, and we have to stop that. Colette Pichon Battle, vision and initiatives partner for Taproot Earth

The final panel, “Ocean Joy: Justice in Action,” focused on the transformative and rejuvenating power of the ocean. Historically, conversations around ocean conservation have followed a false narrative that posits all ocean use as necessarily consumptive—its importance measured by its economic impact, such as with commercial fishing. This narrow portrayal excludes the majority of the public, as well as the work of advocates around the country who enjoy the ocean while advancing equitable and just action in conservation, education, and economic opportunity. This panel featured advocates who are advancing justice from a place of ocean joy: fishing, surfing, and diving, with an impact that reaches far beyond the shore.

I just want to say that I think events like this are so important, and not just thanks to the organizers and the folks that had the bravery and the courage to put something like this on. But for you to be sitting in this room and for you to be tuning in online, you’re showing people that there is value in celebrating people that look like us, and our experiences, and what we do bring to the table. Anupa Asokan, senior advocate in the Oceans Division of the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council

How to change the tide for ocean justice

This Ocean Month, CAP and its partners centered ocean justice. If historically marginalized communities do not have proper representation, they will continue to be underserved and overburdened by insufficient solutions to existing problems. Communities and advocates have long been fighting to make their voices heard—and as more people in policy spheres start to listen, they will find that equitable conservation leads to better, more lasting outcomes.

If you have one friend who supports you, that’s a team; if you have three friends, that’s a movement. And whether you’re on an island or you’re in a city, you can make that happen. Angelo Villagomez, senior fellow at CAP

To ensure that ocean policies are equitable and just, the Biden administration should follow recommendations included in the Ocean Justice Forum platform and the America the Beautiful for All policy agenda:

  • Use the Ocean Justice Strategy to lay out a road map for how to serve the communities historically excluded from ocean decision-making.
  • Engage meaningfully with communities—especially those that have been historically marginalized, including communities of color, Tribal and territorial communities, and environmental justice communities—to ensure that their perspectives are involved in all levels of natural resource management.
  • Improve co-stewardship and co-management of public lands and waters with territories, Tribes, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
  • Improve access to natural spaces for historically marginalized communities, including communities of color, Tribal and territorial communities, and environmental justice communities, by providing increased funding, improved transportation, and community use agreements.

The United States must continue to center the voices and experiences of historically marginalized communities in order to advance equitable ocean policies and achieve just outcomes for people and the ocean.

The authors would like to thank the CAP Events team, the CAP Digital Strategy team, Margaret Cooney, Nicole Gentile, and the CAP Editorial team for their contributions to this article and event.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


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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