The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Biden’s 30×30 plan gives hope, but also uncertainty

On May 6th, the Biden administration released the “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” report that instructed NOAA to expand the National Marine Sanctuaries System, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, to “help restore fish populations and better protect threatened and endangered species.” This report is considered the administration’s plan to meet the 30% of land and water protected by 2030 or “30 by 30” initiative put forth by executive order (E.O. 14008) in January 2021.

Before getting into the specifics of this report, it is worth reviewing the history of the “30×30” planning process and some of the initial responses from stakeholders:

  • November 2014 – The World Parks Congress hosted by IUCN sets a 30% target.
  • September 2016 – The World Conservation Congress voted to support increasing the portion of the ocean that is highly protected to at least 30% to help effectively conserve biodiversity.
  • November 2020 – U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva introduced the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act. Title II of this act called for expanding marine protected areas (MPAs) in U.S. waters to equal 30% of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
  • November 2020 – Immediately after this introduction, more than 830 seafood industry stakeholders sent a letter to Rep. Grijalva expressing their concern about the proposals under Title II.
  • December 2020 – 28 prominent marine scientists sent a similar letter of opposition to Congress, questioning the justification for 30% MPAs described in Title II.

When the Biden administration introduced the 30×30 initiative in January 2021, various fishing industry stakeholders were upset for similar reasons described in the letters of opposition towards Title II of the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act.

Those letters argued U.S. fisheries were already some of the most well-managed and sustainable in the world. Title II “would undermine our nation’s world-class system of fisheries management, harming fishermen and the coastal communities they sustain.” Shutting down more U.S. fishing territory to reach 30% MPAs would be a net reduction of sustainable fisheries globally. It would shift demand to less sustainable seafood sources abroad, creating disadvantages for domestic industry stakeholders.

Another critique was that broader MPA adoption would not benefit climate change-related impacts on marine biodiversity. “Instead, they will decrease flexibility of the fishery management system to adapt to climate change.” The letter of opposition from marine scientists explained, “the establishment of marine protected areas that ban all commercial fishing activity in 30% of U.S. ocean waters by 2030, is not based on the best scientific information available and would not be the most effective way to protect marine biodiversity.”

However, the response to this new May 6th report, meant to outline the plan for executing 30×30 and Title II specifically, has been met with relative optimism from the stakeholders that publicly opposed Title II last year.

This passage from the report may explain the change in tone:

There were concerns raised about the impacts of conserving lands and waters on future abilities to mine critical minerals, conduct active forest management, harvest fish, and other activities—important considerations that underscore the value of making balanced land and ocean management decisions through public processes that are informed by the best available scientific information and accurate maps. Other discussions with stakeholders indicated the importance of working collaboratively with private landowners, Tribal Nations, State agencies, fishing communities, and others, and the need to affirm that private property rights will be honored and protected.

Principle 5 in the report emphasized the importance of preserving and creating jobs in natural resource areas like fisheries, while Principle 6 promoted stewardship amongst fishers. This acknowledgment of stakeholders and mixed-use conservation has eased concerns over a 30% hard MPA target. SeafoodSource reported that the Seafood Harvesters of America, the At-Sea Processors Association, and SalmonState all applauded this new messaging.

The report also acknowledged the U.S.’ strong fishery management and its ability to protect the ocean through existing means:

Finally, the United States boasts one of the most dynamic and innovative wild-capture fishery management systems in the world under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act. The management measures that are available to fisheries management authorities, such as gear-based restrictions and habitat-based measures, could be applied to achieve improved conservation outcomes that benefit the health of fisheries as well as other marine species and habitats. NOAA should work closely with regional fishery management councils to identify areas or networks of areas where their fisheries management efforts would support long-term conservation goals.

But as attitudes have softened from fishing industry stakeholders since the release of this report, the conservation community has bristled at the report’s lack of specificity. Many early proponents of Title II are expressing trepidation that the protections may be less comprehensive than expected. Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Public Lands Program, worried “this America the Beautiful report is a pivot. It’s not 30×30, and I am concerned.”

The ambiguity in the report is concerning to hardline conservationists but encouraging to the fishing industry, a compromise of sorts that will probably leave both sides equally wary.

The report does not deviate from the 30% MPA goal but does not specify where or to what extent MPAs will be created. It is unknown which fisheries will be most impacted by the increase to 30% MPAs, or if the new MPA territory will be designated in areas of low fishing effort like the arctic.

We also have no idea how limiting these MPAs will be – will they be no-take zones, or would an area with slightly increased limitations be considered an MPA under this plan? According to the Marine Conservation Institute, only 2.7% of ocean areas are “fully protected,” and only 3.7% are “implemented but less protected.” Much of the U.S. EEZ is not considered under protection at all. Yet others might consider the entire U.S. EEZ protected under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. NOAA states 26% of U.S. waters to be MPAs, with 3% as no-take marine reserves. NOAA shares its definition of an MPA with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN):

A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.

So, what counts towards the 30% MPA goal; are we 4% away or 27% away from reaching the target? NOAA doesn’t know:

The Executive Order does not define the level of conservation that would be applied to measure progress toward the 30 x 30 target—Federal agencies will conduct further stakeholder engagement on formulating the concept or definition of ‘conserve.’

For those that initially opposed Title II last year, it is certainly positive to hear the Biden administration acknowledge effective fisheries management already in place and to present a multi-stakeholder, consultative process for executing a 30% MPA initiative. The considerate tone in the report eased fears, though there is still uncertainty in how the plan will designate winners and losers in commercial fishing.

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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