To Save Nature, We Must Protect 30 Percent of U.S. Ocean

A hawksbill sea turtle is pictured off the coast of Florida, in the Atlantic Ocean.

Long before she alerted the world to the danger of the pesticide DDT, marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote in her book, The Sea Around Us, “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.” Today, in the face of a mass extinction of the plants, animals, and microorganisms that keep our air clean, our water pure, and our food supplies plentiful, her words ring even truer. The planet has lost 60 percent of its wildlife since 1970. Two-thirds of wetlands have disappeared, and nearly 33 percent of reef-forming corals and more than a third of marine mammals are threatened with extinction. Three-quarters of the planet’s lands and two-thirds of its ocean areas have been significantly altered by human activities. All this is happening while climate change is making the ocean hotter, more acidic, and less habitable for fish and wildlife.

But the ocean is not just a victim of climate change—it is also a powerful source of solutions. Protecting the ocean could provide one-fifth of the global greenhouse gas emission reductions that are needed to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Potential solutions include protecting the blue carbon ecosystems that sequester carbon; housing the offshore wind energy needed to achieve a clean future; ensuring that fisheries are climate-ready; and reducing ship speeds. Together, these solutions could reduce carbon emissions; promote coastal resiliency and adaptation to ready communities for climate impacts such as sea-level rise and storm surge; and establish a pathway to protect 30 percent of U.S. ocean habitats and ecosystems by 2030, a goal known as 30×30.

Protecting 30 percent of the U.S. ocean is key to saving the diversity and abundance of life on Earth. Scientists have found that placing at least 30 percent of the world’s ocean in fully or highly protected marine protected areas (MPAs) is necessary to stem the extinction of ocean wildlife, stabilize our climate, and safeguard our future. The United States has currently protected 23 percent of its oceans, but more than 99 percent of that area is in the remote Pacific. Protecting more areas that are closer to heavily populated coastal communities would not only benefit biodiversity but also improve the health and economic outlook for the millions of Americans who rely on the coast and ocean. Protecting 30 percent of the U.S. ocean near people and ensuring access to more nature would also benefit families with children, low-income communities, and people of color—all of whom are more likely to be deprived of the benefits of nature.

Objectives and impacts of the Magnuson-Stevens Act

Because highly to fully protected MPAs prohibit or reduce industrial fishing activity, many commercial fishermen have been wary of the 30 percent goal. The fishing industry has long believed that the United States’ primary fishery management law is the only tool that can or should address fishing activity. U.S. fisheries are indeed among the best managed in the world under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Under the law, the United States has reduced overfishing by setting and enforcing sustainable fishing limits and has progressed in rebuilding stocks that are recovering from past overfishing. While the MSA’s success is undeniable, many of these conservation-minded provisions are relatively new additions from the law’s most recent reauthorization in 2007. And although the MSA has a mandate to ensure sustainable long-term fishing operations, this legal mandate does not extend to ensuring healthy oceans or protecting the ocean biodiversity and ecosystem services upon which many Americans depend.

This is why the MSA is not an ocean management law—it is a fisheries management law. Its core principles are based in fisheries science and focused on managing a single species or closely related species complexes—not on the conservation of biodiversity. At its best, the MSA has reduced pressure on specific species complexes such as groundfish off the West Coast and single species of fish such as the American plaice off the East Coast, allowing those populations to rebuild and once again be fished. But the MSA does little to address the destructive impacts of climate change and other nonfishing stressors on biodiversity.

To provide significant benefits to biodiversity, highly to fully protected MPAs are necessary. The MSA does have some habitat protection provisions; the law requires regional fishery management councils to declare essential fish habitat (EFH). Councils are mandated to consider how such habitat can be conserved and, where practicable, enact measures to protect it. Unfortunately, the EFH provisions and their state-based equivalents are underused; a CAP analysis found more than 75 percent of EFH-designated and state-based equivalent areas to be minimally protective at best. Given the law’s practicability standard, it is unsurprising that regulatory bodies comprised of fishermen have rarely found it practicable to limit fishing. It is also important to note that EFH designations are not MPAs because they are not permanent and only allow the councils to regulate fishing actions that harm habitat. They cannot, for example, prevent a salt marsh from being filled or a coral reef from being dredged.

In short, the MSA is not a habitat conservation law but a fisheries management tool that regulates fishing on some species and protects a relatively small amount of habitat from certain fishing impacts. This is a relatively small sliver of ocean life. The MSA manages a little more than 479 different fish stocks or stock complexes of fish. Leaving aside the species yet to be discovered, at least 49,250 documented species are currently found in U.S. waters. This means the MSA manages no more than 1 percent of all known species in U.S. waters. While the law plays a critical role in maintaining sustainable populations of commercially valuable species for commercial and other extractive uses, it does very little to protect the habitat of those species. Additionally, ocean ecosystems are significantly vaster and more complicated than those few under the law’s purview, meaning the MSA is ill-equipped to conserve the ocean’s biodiversity to the extent scientists have said is necessary.

Benefits of MPAs

Expanding ocean MPAs to protect a higher percentage of marine species and habitats does not harm fishing industry interests. For example, the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument—two of the largest U.S. MPAs in the Pacific Ocean—had no measurable economic effects on the region’s fishing industry. Similarly, there were no adverse impacts on regional fishing industries associated with the declaration of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in New England waters.

However, there is substantial evidence from across the United States that expanding MPAs and decreasing habitat stressors, such as fishing and pollution, helps ocean ecosystems and coastal communities become more resilient to climate change. The U.S. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has shown that large MPAs provide substantial large-predator protection for species such as reef sharks, which are a part of healthy functioning reef habitats. Closer to the contiguous United States, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects the third-largest barrier reef system in the world, and recent studies have shown that expanded protections are needed to maintain healthy populations of reef-building species of coral. In the colder waters off the mid-Atlantic, oyster and urban habitat conservation has benefited water quality, coastal resilience, and ecosystem services in both the Chesapeake Bay and the Long Island Sound. Off of the West Coast, scientists are seeing more and larger fish and invertebrates—an early sign of success for the network of MPAs in California created by the Marine Life Protection Act.

Managing sustainable fisheries is one part of maintaining a healthy and climate-resilient ocean, but it is not the only part. Just as habitat protection cannot replace fisheries management, fisheries management cannot replace habitat protection. Both systems must be used in concert to achieve a sustainable, healthy, and economically robust ocean. By protecting 30 percent of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030, the United States can continue to build on its strong record of ocean conservation leadership.

At the Center for American Progress, Alexandra Carter is a policy analyst for Ocean Policy; Kat So is a special assistant for Energy and Environment Policy; and Miriam Goldstein is the managing director for Energy and Environment Policy and the director of Ocean Policy.