U.S. Ocean Leadership: Getting from 1% to 30% Marine Protection

The U.S. Department of State is set to host the third annual Our Ocean conference this week. This gathering of political leaders, philanthropists, scientists, diplomats, NGO executives, filmmakers, and private sector leaders, will be focused on the themes of marine protected areas, climate change, sustainable fisheries, and marine pollution. Many of us in the ocean conservation and policy community are awaiting the outcomes of this meeting with baited breath.

Perhaps the greatest value of the previous conferences is that they served as a deadline and platform for launching important new initiatives for ocean conservation. And given the dire and worsening state of our ocean, commitment to bold actions are sorely needed.

Only 1% of our ocean is protected in marine reserves (i.e., completely closed to all extractive activities, including fishing). Recently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) proclaimed that 30% of the ocean needs to be protected in marine reserves by 2030, including 30% of each type of habitat. Whether the goal is sustainable fisheries or protection of biodiversity, scientific research strongly supports increasing protection to over 30%. Furthermore, recent science has shown that there is no substitute for remote, fully marine wilderness areas when it comes to conserving the quantity and diversity of fish.

Map of recenrtly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Via honolulu Star Advertiser.
Map of recently expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (Via honolulu Star Advertiser.)

Last month, President Obama announced a major expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. This was wonderful news for the protection of coral reefs and other tropical ecosystems in US waters! But it doesn’t get us anywhere near 30%.

So, this month, my colleagues and I are eager to hear another declaration, one that creates a New England Marine National Monument to protect the canyons and seamounts offshore of the northeast US. Seamounts are underwater mountains that attract a diversity of species and support healthy fisheries. Though I prefer to swim in warm water, I understand the value of protecting these cooler, temperate ecosystems. And, most unfortunately, this swath of ocean may be far too warm quite soon — climate change is causing these waters to warming faster than almost any other part of the ocean — so protection is an important step to build the resilience of this ecosystem.

Deep water coral in Nygren Canyon. Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition
Deep water coral in Nygren Canyon. (Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition)

More broadly, we need concrete, robust, and accelerated plans for:

        • Creating new marine reserves focused on protecting nursery habitats, spawning habitats, the high seas, and areas resistant and resilient to the impacts of climate change.
        • Protecting and restoring coastal habitats such as marshes, mangroves, oyster reefs, and seagrass that serve as important nursery habitats for many species, protect the shorelines from the impacts of storms, and sequester carbon.
        • Increasing the capacity for monitoring and enforcement of existing marine reserves, because lines on a map mean nothing without enforcement.

The United States can play an important role in leading the charge toward protecting 30% of our ocean, so I am standing by, holding onto my #oceanoptimism, and hoping to hear from Secretary Kerry, President Obama, and other political leaders around the world about how to get from here to there.

UPDATE!: President Obama designated the New England Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument on Thursday! The full list of declarations and commitments made at the Our Ocean conference is quite impressive. Momentum is building…

President Obama visiting Midway Atoll, part of the expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

For more on the inaugural 2014 conference, see my blog post: Our Ocean Conference: A Turning Point for Ocean Conservation?



Meet the Author
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.