Center for American Progress

Now Is the Time To Secure President Biden’s Ocean Leadership Legacy

Now Is the Time To Secure President Biden’s Ocean Leadership Legacy

The Biden administration must use the 2024 Our Ocean Conference in Greece to deliver on past ocean commitments while building toward a modern ocean conservation policy that goes beyond 30x30.

Pacific Ocean waves crash along the coastline of a marine area proposed as part of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.
Pacific Ocean waves crash along the coastline of a marine area proposed as part of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary near Los Osos, California, on September 20, 2023.

In the past three years, the United States has made great strides in global ocean conservation. From the historic treaty on management of the high seas, or BBNJ agreement, and increased attention on the ocean-climate nexus to the growth of the “30×30” movement being enshrined in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful” initiative, the country is seeing progress on efforts to halt and reverse the decline in ocean ecosystem health.

At the ninth Our Ocean Conference, which will take place in Greece on April 15–17, 2024, ocean stakeholders—policymakers, conservation advocates, and philanthropists—will meet to discuss how to capitalize on recent conservation gains and how to tackle the critical issues facing ocean ecosystems today. Historically, the Our Ocean Conference, created by then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014, has been dominated by announcements committing countries to programs and projects aimed at addressing challenges to a healthy ocean future. However, these voluntary commitments often fall short, and implementation—the real crux of ocean conservation—lags far behind the promises.

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Fulfilling past promises by securing 30×30 targets

Through his America the Beautiful initiative, President Biden has committed to putting the United States on a path to conserve 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030.

The United States is on the cusp of achieving 30×30 on ocean, especially if strong fisheries measures are counted as “other effective area-based conservation measures.” More than 26 percent of the U.S. exclusive economic zone has already been set aside for marine protected areas (MPAs) since then-President Barack Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument almost a decade ago. This achievement has set the United States apart as a global leader in MPA designations, but it also falsely suggests that the United States is close to achieving a fully sustainable ocean.

While 30×30 is a helpful framework for conceptualizing conservation goals and gaining political consensus around a global target, U.S. MPAs are unevenly distributed across the country, and they are sorely lacking in implementation. Additionally, the focus on quantity has hindered the development of metrics for access, equity, and quality in ocean management.

Quantitative metrics mask geographic disparities

The Pacific islands, which include Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific territories, are home to more than 96 percent of U.S. MPAs of varying levels of protection and 99.5 percent of U.S. marine reserves—areas that are fully to highly protected. Meanwhile, less than 2 percent of the waters around the continental United States are set aside for MPAs, nearly all of which have the lowest levels of protection. This disparity undermines the ecological goals at the core of the 30×30 push, as protections in the Pacific mask the paucity of protection in the rest of the country. Achieving this national 30×30 goal requires ensuring a representative network of conserved areas that protects a diverse array of ecosystems and species and builds resilience to climate change by connecting critical habitats.

New protected area designations in other parts of the country are needed for achieving 30×30 in the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should continue to build up its National Marine Sanctuaries Program by working with and following the lead of nominating communities to begin or complete designation of all proposed national marine sanctuaries in the agency’s inventory of successful nominations, including Chumash Heritage, Hudson Canyon, and Papahānaumokuākea.

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MPA implementation is currently lacking

Conserved areas only result in benefits to nature and people when they are implemented and well enforced. Nearly half of marine conserved area coverage in the United States remains unimplemented. For example, the Mariana Trench and the Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments, which were designated in 2009 during the George W. Bush administration, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, designated in 2016 during the Obama administration, have yet to deliver final management plans. The United States needs to fund, staff, and implement existing conserved areas. Without addressing these gaps, the laudable conservation progress made under the Biden administration will remain incomplete.

Accordingly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA should commit to a 2024 deadline to complete and publish management plans for these marine national monuments. Additionally, the Biden administration must give critical federal support to front-line ocean communities, especially those living in the U.S. Pacific territories, so they can participate in ocean conservation initiatives. This should include engaging local communities in the implementation of existing conserved areas and recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples and involving them in a meaningful way in management decisions and advisory roles.

See also

Beyond U.S. borders, the Biden administration must put its formidable diplomatic forces behind past commitments as well. In terms of the high seas, the finalization and adoption of the historic BBNJ treaty was a remarkable achievement; but the work is not yet done. The United States must ratify the BBNJ treaty, and encourage other countries to do so as well, to enable stakeholders to operationalize and leverage the treaty’s conservation provisions. In the Southern Ocean, where the United States has shown decades of conservation leadership, the Biden administration should prioritize achieving a multilateral, science-based plan to integrate the Antarctic Peninsula MPA proposal with krill fishery management at the upcoming symposium in South Korea in July. It should also signal its goal of achieving a representative network of MPAs around Antarctica by sending acting Assistant Secretary Jennifer R. Littlejohn to the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in October.

How the Biden administration can secure its 30x30 ocean conservation goal

As detailed above, the Biden administration should take the following steps to ensure it meets its 30×30 targets:

  • Begin or complete designation of all proposed national marine sanctuaries.
  • Commit to a 2024 deadline to complete and publish management plans for the Mariana Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts marine national monuments.
  • Give critical federal support to front-line ocean communities.
  • Ratify the BBNJ treaty and encourage other countries to follow suit.
  • Prioritize achieving a multilateral, science-based plan to integrate the Antarctic Peninsula MPA proposal and send the acting assistant secretary to the annual CCAMLR meeting.

Going beyond 30×30

Instead of debating “what counts,” the United States must go “beyond 30×30” and focus its efforts on effective and equitable ocean policies with a diverse portfolio of habitat types. The Biden administration’s Ocean Climate Action Plan and Ocean Justice Strategy lay out a framework for integrating access, equity, and quality into ocean policy, but we need to go further. The America Beautiful for All Coalition’s policy agenda outlines how to do just that by working with front-line and Indigenous communities to increase equitable access, celebrate cultures and identities tied to uses of the ocean, and protect and conserve nature, all while integrating sustainable levels of human use and protection of the sacred.

Critical habitats, including salt marshes, seagrass, mangroves, and corals, as well as keystone species, such as oysters, kelp, and salmon, have supported communities for millennia before the United States was founded; but they are now threatened by human use, development, pollution, and climate change. Conservation areas around these coastal places—designed with sustainable uses in mind—are going to be much smaller than the huge marine monuments in the Pacific. But they are incredibly important to people and communities around the country. Developing conservation solutions around these places will not deliver the huge quantitative targets of 30×30, but it is critical for achieving the goals of America the Beautiful to create jobs and support healthy communities and for supporting locally led and locally designed conservation efforts.

To further secure President Biden’s ocean legacy, policymakers must lay the groundwork to go beyond 30x30, focusing efforts on effective and equitable ocean policies.

Moreover, there are new challenges on the horizon when it comes to equitable conservation outcomes and protection of ocean resources. Ocean carbon dioxide removal methods are gaining attention as a tool to address climate change, but the benefits and risks of these interventions are not yet clearly determined. Engagement of front-line, Indigenous, and local communities is currently limited, and these discussions must be prioritized as policymakers move forward in developing guardrails for both private and public research and trials. Similarly, as the Biden administration deploys both offshore and onshore clean energy installations as part of its signature Inflation Reduction Act, ensuring a balance between emissions reduction, front-line community needs, and ecological conservation is paramount to achieving an equitable set of benefits.


Ocean conservation progress under the Biden administration is significant, but these gains have yet to be secured. The administration should use the Our Ocean Conference, and the remaining months of this year, to fulfill its ambitious ocean commitments while prioritizing implementation to ensure the durability of these accomplishments. To further secure President Biden’s ocean legacy, policymakers must lay the groundwork to go beyond 30×30, focusing efforts on effective and equitable ocean policies, delivering conservation benefits to local communities, and enabling the protection of critical habitats into the future.

The authors would like to thank CAP’s Editorial team for their support.

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Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow

Anne Christianson

Director, International Climate Policy


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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