Biden admin rolls out first-of-its-kind ocean conservation plan, prioritizing Indigenous knowledge

A gray seal swims through turquoise waters

If you’ve ever found yourself asking if the United States government “has a plan” for something you care about, we’ve got good news for ocean lovers.

To kick off June, the Smithsonian and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the rollout of a first-of-its-kind National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy.

This strategy — an approximately 18-page document written by the aforementioned organizations — calls for a “stronger, more unified and inclusive approach to ocean conservation,” per a press release from the Smithsonian.

Announced by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy earlier this week, it represents the first nationwide strategy aimed at taking action to save marine life — and, subsequently, all life.

A school of small, skinny gray fish swim in ocean waters, next to a sprig of kelp
Kelp & Sardines, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

“Life in the ocean touches everyone,” said Gabrielle Canonico, leader of the U.S. Marine Biodiversity Observation Network at NOAA and co-chair of the team that wrote the strategy. 

“Every other breath we take comes from the oxygen produced by microscopic ocean plants, and more than a billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. But these and other benefits will degrade with biodiversity loss, with dire consequences especially for frontline communities.”

According to the Smithsonian, the ocean contributes nearly $400 billion to the U.S. economy every year, providing 2.4 million jobs in fishing, shipping, tourism, and energy.

Plus, the total ocean territory under U.S. management covers an area larger than all 50 states combined. While protections for marine life have increased in recent years, there is a huge chunk of U.S. marine ecosystems and diverse species that remain unprotected or misunderstood.

The strategy hopes to close those gaps by working alongside local and Indigenous stakeholders.

A group of coral in the ocean
Photo courtesy of Kydd Pollock/The Nature Conservancy

“We are confronting biodiversity loss and its implications for human well-being, alongside the challenges posed by climate change and social inequity,” said Ellen Stofan, Under Secretary for Science and Research at the Smithsonian. 

“We hold the power to overcome these obstacles with a united, society-wide effort to preserve nature and its benefits.”

The strategy outlines a threefold plan to overcome these obstacles and create a more inclusive, evidence-based network of protection in U.S. ocean waters (and the Great Lakes).

As a first step, stakeholders will coordinate ocean research and conservation across the U.S. by bringing together federal agencies, states, Tribes, and local communities.

This process will prioritize the documentation of the economic and cultural values of the ocean to ensure that all costs of a degrading ocean ecosystem are understood and included in decision-making.

“There is a special need for focus on the many audiences, including underserved and inland communities and decision-makers who lack opportunities to explore the benefits of healthy ocean biodiversity and ecosystems,” the strategy explained. 

A scuba diver explores in the ocean
Dr. Courtney Couch prepares to take digital photographs of the reef surface in the shallows off of Swains Island in the South Pacific. Photo courtesy of Mia Lamarind/NOAA Fisheries

Following this robust research process, NOAA and the Smithsonian will “strengthen the information pipeline” and provide accessible, open-source databases and educational materials for anyone who has a stake in the ocean’s health.

“Efforts to connect people of all ages and backgrounds firsthand to the often hidden and inaccessible life of the ocean through storytelling and other forms of communication will align with and amplify existing local, territorial, state, and Tribal efforts in ocean education,” the strategy stated.

This process will also include revamping taxonomy and using new technologies like eDNA satellites and artificial intelligence.

Lastly, once data is gathered and shared, the strategy calls for the protection, conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of ocean biodiversity. This will be done through the co-management and co-stewardship of marine protected areas.

“The strategy’s success hinges on partnerships with all key stakeholders — states, Tribes, local communications, NGOs, and the private sector, including commercial and recreational fishers,” a press release shared.

This includes listening sessions and ongoing collaborations, so all stakeholders can better understand each other’s needs and contributions to create long-term protection measures for the ocean.

A green sea turtle glides through the ocean
Photo courtesy of NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center

“We are advancing frontier technologies for biodiversity science and understanding,” said Sarah Kapnick, NOAA chief scientist, in a statement. 

“But it is critical that we come together around the use of evidence-based metrics and indicators for decision making in ocean spaces, and for monitoring, reporting and verification to ensure that investments in conservation or development deliver the desired outcomes while minimizing negative impacts to ocean life.”

As exciting as it is that the U.S. finally has its own plan for ocean biodiversity and conservation, the plan’s authors have made it clear that this strategy is a first step on the journey to a more sustainable and equitable ocean. 

An implementation plan — which will more clearly outline the allocation of funds for these efforts — will soon follow.

“This strategy is our best chance yet to turn the tide,” said Emmett Duffy, the strategy’s other co-chair and chief scientist of MarineGEO at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

“We need to implement it to reach a future where people and the rest of nature thrive together by joining forces and leveraging the power of people and technology to understand the living ocean ecosystem.

Header image courtesy of NOAA

Article Details

June 4, 2024 12:45 PM
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