Scientists have sounded the alarm over the state of the ocean for decades, and overfishing, pollution, plastic waste, climate change, and unsustainable coastal development have taken their toll. As a result, only 3 percent of the ocean is free from human pressure; one-third of fish stocks are overexploited; and 2 degrees Celsius of global warming will cause more than 99 percent of coral reefs to decline. In practice, this has meant families losing their homes in extreme climate events, local fishers unable to care for their children, and average beachgoers swimming around plastic waste.
The eighth Our Ocean Conference will take place in Panama on March 2–3, 2023. Ocean stakeholders—policymakers, conservation advocates, and philanthropies—will meet to discuss 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 and securing a more equitable and healthy ocean future. However, these voluntary commitments often fall short, and implementation—the real crux of ocean conservation—lags far behind the promises.
Percentage of the ocean free from human pressure
Percentage of coral reefs that will decline with 2 degrees Celsius of warming
In 2022 at the Our Ocean Conference in Palau, the Center for American Progress wrote about what the United States must do to address the decline in ocean ecosystems, but there are five gaps that the Biden administration should address to make this year’s Our Ocean commitments effective: achieving the America the Beautiful initiative; offshore wind power; coastal resilience; high seas and Southern Ocean conservation; and natural security issues. Here, CAP calls for a change in mindset: The United States should use the Our Ocean Conference as a platform to catalyze and demand implementation across these five gaps, quantifying success not in dollars pledged but in measurable social and ecological gains.
Conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030
President Joe Biden committed to putting the United States on a path to conserve 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030 through his America the Beautiful initiative, a concept enshrined in December 2022 by the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity through the Global Biodiversity Framework. More than 26 percent of the U.S. exclusive economic zone has been set aside in marine protected areas (MPAs) since former President Barack Obama expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2016. This achievement sets the United States apart as a global leader in MPA designations, but it also falsely suggests that the United States is close to achieving the goals behind 30 percent marine protection and 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.
The Pacific Islands, which include Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific territories, are home to 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 in MPAs, nearly all of which have the lowest levels of protection. This disparity undermines the conservation 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 goal requires ensuring a representative network of protected areas.
Percentage of U.S. marine reserves that are located in the Pacific Islands
Additionally, protected areas only result in benefits to nature and people when they are implemented and well enforced. This occurs when a management plan is enacted with planned activities to mitigate threats and achieve conservation goals, such as the hiring of staff or the monitoring of resources. Yet some of the largest protected areas in the United States remain unimplemented.
For example, the Mariana Trench and the Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments, which were designated during the Bush administration in 2009, have yet to deliver final management plans three presidential administrations later. The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument only has one ranger in the Mariana Islands, responsible for an area 20 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. And the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, designated in 2016 during the Obama administration, just announced a notice of intent to begin the multiyear process of developing a management plan.
Additional protected area designations are going to be critical for achieving 30×30 in the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should 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 its inventory of successful nominations, including Chumash Heritage, Hudson Canyon, Mariana Trench, Alaĝum Kanuux̂, and Papahānaumokuākea.
In addition to new designations, the United States needs to fund, staff, and implement existing protected areas. Without addressing these gaps, the laudable conservation progress made under the Biden administration remains incomplete.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA should commit to a deadline to complete and publish management plans for the Mariana Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Northeast Canyon and Seamounts 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, to participate in ocean conservation initiatives. This includes engaging local communities in the implementation of existing protected areas and recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples and involving them in a meaningful way in management decisions and advisory roles.
Offshore wind energy has incredible potential to accelerate the clean energy transition. It is a more cost-effective energy source than offshore drilling for oil and gas, and the Inflation Reduction Act contains provisions that allow the United States to make progress on the goal of achieving 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030—a necessary and timely investment in the effort to transition away from fossil fuels.
However, to fulfill its promise, the industry must scale up in a way that creates good union jobs and long-term economic sustainability; minimizes impacts to a fragile marine environment; and balances other ocean uses. The Biden administration has an opportunity right now to implement a big-picture, forward-looking vision and intentionally design the large-scale system—that is, an offshore grid, ports, and domestic supply chains—and regional economic hubs that will create tens of thousands of good jobs and minimize environmental impacts. However, the window to direct how the industry will scale is quickly closing.
The Biden administration should create and implement a transmission plan that systematically coordinates, consolidates, and permits the amount of offshore wind transmission infrastructure necessary to support the energy generation needed to reach U.S. offshore wind goals. This will also create jobs and minimize impacts to environmental justice communities and ocean ecosystems.
Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act provides incentives for registered apprenticeship programs, which will ensure that each newly built offshore wind project will help train the workforce of the future. The Biden administration should ensure that these programs benefit the communities that will be altered by offshore wind infrastructure, particularly environmental justice communities and Tribes and other Indigenous people.
The Biden administration should also work to bolster community benefit agreements (CBAs), which are legal agreements between developers and community groups that detail how the developer will provide financial and social benefits in exchange for community support for the project. This tool can create beneficial partnerships for all stakeholders, generate clean energy, and center historically marginalized Tribes and Indigenous people so that they reap the benefits of a new, booming industry. The administration should meaningfully increase the percentage of the credit given to bidders so that additional funds from developers can be channeled toward creating resilient and collaborative community engagement and benefits, as well as consider requiring CBAs for all offshore wind bids.
Coastal communities are at the forefront of the climate crisis, subject to increasingly severe extreme weather events, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems. One solution—supported by 68 percent of Americans and with bipartisan congressional backing—is to restore the natural infrastructure that protects communities, supports wildlife, and locks away carbon. Investing in key coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, seagrass meadows, oyster beds, and coral reefs creates jobs and helps coastal communities prepare for the now-inevitable impacts of climate change. This is especially important for historically disadvantaged communities that have and continue to experience the disproportionate impacts of climate change.
Investing in key coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, seagrass meadows, oyster beds, and coral reefs creates jobs and helps coastal communities prepare for the now-inevitable impacts of climate change.
In 2021, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $1 billion in funding over five years for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes habitat restoration and resilience projects through NOAA. More recently, the Inflation Reduction Act included $2.6 billion for coastal resilience projects. This unprecedented funding presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create jobs and make coasts and beaches more resilient, green, and equitable.
Federal investment in coastal resilience
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dollars for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes habitat restoration and resilience projects
Inflation Reduction Act dollars for coastal resilience projects
NOAA’s Inflation Reduction Act spending should follow the Justice 40 principles and provide at least 40 percent of coastal investments to environmental justice communities. This should include waiving matching fund requirements to ensure that communities with fewer resources can also receive investment.
Coastal resilience investments should also prioritize coastal blue carbon and community engagement efforts. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters Federal Partnership reconnects urban communities, particularly those that are overburdened or economically distressed, with their waterways by improving coordination among federal agencies and collaborating with community-led revitalization efforts.
The federal government should also expand the technical assistance it provides to state, territorial, local, and Tribal governments—with particular focus on disadvantaged communities—to assess coastal flood and sea level rise risks and incorporate data in decision-making. This could include support for planning and for accessing and interpreting the data needed to incorporate the risk of storms and rising seas.
High seas and Antarctic conservation
Ocean issues extend beyond countries’ exclusive economic zones, yet the mechanisms to protect these ecologically and economically important waters—which account for two-thirds of the ocean—are limited and inchoate. The high seas are currently plagued by illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; overfishing; plastic pollution; mineral exploration; and climate change. In response to these ongoing threats, the United Nations will shortly conclude a process, started in 2017, to create an international treaty regulating the high seas, known as the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) treaty. Although the initial timeline for treaty completion was 2020, the negotiations have dragged out due to the coronavirus pandemic and obstructionism by the Chinese and Russian delegations.
Unlike the high seas, the waters of the Southern Ocean had a regulatory framework put in place in 1982 and are governed through the multilateral Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The United States has long been a leader in Southern Ocean research, conservation, and governance. Yet here too, Russian, Chinese, and to a certain extent Norwegian opposition has stalled progress to designate new MPAs and enact the krill conservation measures necessary to ensure Southern Ocean fishing is climate smart and sustainable.
The United States must use its diplomatic weight to secure an ambitious BBNJ treaty, including softening its own stance on the environmental impact assessment provisions, which are critical to increase global accountability on the high seas and fundamental to achieving the biological aims of the agreement.
After the BBNJ agreement is finalized, the Biden administration should prioritize early and consistent outreach that leads to a rapid ratification of the treaty while simultaneously turning its focus toward implementation. This includes providing equitable technical assistance and collaborative partnerships, building out the institutions needed for implementation, and developing a robust proposal for a representative network of protected areas and the management plans to accompany them.
The U.S. Department of State must also prioritize consistent high-level political engagement leading up to the 2023 CCAMLR meeting in order to secure the long-overdue network of protected areas and harmonize the Antarctic Peninsula (Domain 1) MPA with the proposed krill conservation measure. This work would entail 1) leading intersessional negotiations on the MPA network; 2) prioritizing diplomatic efforts in advance of the scheduled intersessional meeting in Chile and provide logistical, scientific, and leadership support during the convening; and 3) committing additional staff and resources to CCAMLR efforts in 2023.
Natural security in the marine environment
Maritime security issues are most often discussed in the context of IUU fishing, maritime piracy, conflict over fisheries, or the impacts of climate change. Yet the implications of marine ecosystem degradation and disruption go beyond these traditional security concerns. With about 40 percent of the world’s population living in coastal zones, and 17 percent of global meat protein coming from or produced in the ocean, the combined effect of both socioeconomic (political, economic, and cultural) and biophysical (resource overextraction, pollution, and habitat destruction) changes will alter entire regions that rely on the services ocean ecosystems provide.
Global experts view this loss of ecosystem services as a destabilizing factor, leading to numerous human, national, and global security threats—from household food and economic insecurity to supply chain disruptions and political instability. Conservation actions such as those described above are necessary to reduce these threats, but the Biden administration can go further to address the natural security implications of marine biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.
Elevating natural security would help unlock the resources and political capital necessary to address transnational ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss.
The Biden administration should prioritize incorporating ideas of natural security into the priorities of multilateral frameworks, intergovernmental forums, and alliances, such as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the G7 and G20, and NATO. Elevating natural security in these spaces would help unlock the resources and political capital necessary to address transnational ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss.
The administration must also recognize natural security as a national security issue akin to climate change and consider it in national security policies, documents, and strategies. Although climate change and nature loss are inextricably linked, natural security is not well understood by the security community, and incorporating it into strategic thinking would better help the United States assess, predict, and mitigate threats associated with nature loss.
The Our Ocean Conference was created in part to bring much needed attention to ocean issues. In this it has been successful. However, the conference’s traditional focus on national commitments has fallen short of tangible benefits for marine ecosystem health and coastal community resilience. The forthcoming conference offers an opportunity for the Biden administration to secure real gains by prioritizing on-the-ground implementation over unrealized announcements.