Center for American Progress

The Biden Administration Can Deliver on Ocean Conservation Promises Made by the Bush and Obama Administrations

The Biden Administration Can Deliver on Ocean Conservation Promises Made by the Bush and Obama Administrations

Publishing final management plans for three marine monuments that have languished in bureaucratic limbo for as many as 15 years would deliver effective management for nearly half the protected waters in the United States.

A researcher counts fish swimming around a coral reef at Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific. (Getty/Rick Loomis)

The Biden administration made a bold commitment to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands, oceans, and waters by 2030 with the America the Beautiful initiative. According to the MPAtlas, the United States has 1,035 marine protected areas (MPAs) encompassing a total of 3,179,983 square kilometers—nearly twice the land area of Alaska. These areas account for 26 percent of U.S. oceans, putting the United States on the cusp of achieving its 30×30 goals on ocean conservation.

But the total amount of ocean conserved masks some shortcomings below the surface of U.S. ocean policy. Notably, 97 percent of all MPAs are located in remote offshore regions of the U.S. Pacific islands, and many of the coastal habitats and species around the country that are most important for people and biodiversity are underrepresented and under threat.

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In addition, nearly half of the conserved ocean areas in the United States have no final management plan, without which they cannot be fully implemented or bring their intended conservation and economic benefits to local communities. Three monuments in particular—the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument—have languished without final management plans for as many as 15 years.

The Biden administration should pursue the following actions with respect to these monuments:

  • Publish final management plans for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Mariana Trench, and Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments.
  • Follow recommendations in the Ocean Justice Strategy in implementing the marine monuments. This includes developing a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible federal workforce in the communities closest to the monuments.
  • Explore co-management opportunities with Tribes and territorial governments, especially with the Mariana Trench and Pacific Remote Islands marine national monuments.

While the Biden administration has undoubtedly made significant progress in ocean conservation, securing management plans for these monuments would be a major milestone and would ensure that the spirit of 30×30 is fully achieved.

Management plans have languished since the Bush administration

President George W. Bush designated the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in 2009, and President Barack Obama later expanded the size of the Pacific Remote Islands in 2014 and also designated the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2016. These three monuments account for 48 percent of U.S. MPAs, yet all lack final management plans. This is both harmful for the objects that these monuments aim to protect and also jeopardizes the community support that is necessary to secure more marine conservation in the future.

The reasons for the delays have been multifaceted. For example, progress in New England was delayed when the Trump administration rolled back protections for Northeast Canyons, which were later restored by the Biden administration. In the Northern Mariana Islands, in addition to the Trump-era monument reviews, there have been governance issues and disagreements between federal agencies and the territorial government, including control over submerged lands in the monument area.

The path forward

Despite these setbacks, 2024 has the potential to be the year when all three management plans are finalized and published because of the work undertaken during the first three years of the Biden administration. Draft management plans for Mariana Trench and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts were made available for public review in 2021 and 2023, respectively. With the support of conservation advocates, these comment periods resulted in hundreds of comments from fishermen, scientists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and communities. Local government officials in the Northern Mariana Islands want to be engaged in the process and wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland asking for the timeline for releasing management plans and co-management agreements.

For the Pacific Remote Islands, a community group was formed in 2019 to provide input to state and federal agencies on the management, proper care, and effective stewardship of the monument. The management plan for Pacific Remote Islands could be made available for public review this year and finalized soon after.

Seeing as they encompass nearly half of the protected ocean areas in the country, the management of these three areas—or lack thereof—is going to play an outsize role in the success or failure of 30×30 on the ocean.

One of the best things the Biden administration can do to build support for its sanctuary proposal would be to show that the Mariana Trench and Pacific Remote Islands monuments benefit the people in the territories.

The MPA Guide, a tool that identifies different types of MPAs and connects them with the outcomes they are intended to achieve, has shown that local support is critical to effective ocean management. But in the Pacific, the marine monuments have not lived up to the expectations of local communities, making additional conservation initiatives even more difficult. For example, in March 2023, the Biden administration announced its intention to designate a new national marine sanctuary in and around the existing Pacific Remote Islands marine national monument. The new sanctuary was proposed by a group in Hawaii called the PRI Coalition and supported by Native Hawaiian activists, elected officials, scientists, and NGOs. But many of the elected officials and community members in the U.S. Pacific territories, where the monument is actually located, have announced their opposition to the plan. Some of this opposition is clearly due to the lack of management progress of the marine monuments and promises made during the Bush and Obama administrations that were never delivered. There would be more support for additional MPAs if the existing ones were deemed effective by the people who live near them.

The Biden administration can navigate this dynamic by examining the proposal through the lens of Justice40 and the White House Ocean Justice Strategy, respecting the rights and interests of the Indigenous peoples who live there and ensuring their input and consultation in future decision-making processes and management. Besides engaging in meaningful dialogue with the territories, one of the best things the Biden administration can do to build support for its sanctuary proposal would be to show that the Mariana Trench and Pacific Remote Islands monuments benefit the people in the territories with jobs, funding, and conservation outcomes.


Scientific studies have shown that MPAs are most effective when they have adequate staff capacity, funding, and support from local communities. Effective management on the ocean begins with the publication and implementation of management plans. It will be difficult to claim that the United States has achieved 30×30 on the ocean if management and implementation for nearly half the country’s MPAs continues to lag for decades. The administration must work with local communities, Indigenous peoples, fishers, and other stakeholders to create a network of geographically representative MPAs that are just, well designed, and well managed.

The authors thank Margaret Cooney and Sheila Babauta for their input in reviewing and editing the contents of the article.

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Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow

Beth Pike

Director of the Marine Protection Atlas, Marine Conservation Institute

Laurie Peterka

Executive Director, Friends of the Mariana Trench

Jen Felt

Ocean Campaign Director, Conservation Law Foundation


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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