Finally—A U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan

PCFFAThe Earth’s oceans are fragile ecosystems that nevertheless provide essential protein to about 3.3 billion people. We ignore the potential ocean impacts of accelerating climate change at great peril to this major world food supply and to the 6% of the world’s economy represented by its seafood harvest and distribution sector.

With so much recent research and concern about the onrushing impacts of climate change on land, its remarkable that so little attention has been paid to these impacts likely to hit our oceans.  This is extremely short-sighted.

Fortunately, some of this neglect is now being addressed—at least in the U.S.—by the first-ever U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan (OCAP) released in March 2023.

The OCAP includes three broad themes: (a) creating a carbon-neutral future; (b) implementing and accelerating nature-based solutions toward decarbonization, and (c) improving coastal community resilience to climate change, including developing “climate-ready fisheries.”

The plan contains more than 200 specific actions and timelines, many fast-tracked to make them relatively short-term deliverables.

It will likely have profound effects on U.S. responses to try to avert what the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in 2023, warns us in stark terms is a fast-approaching, climate-driven catastrophe.

Unfortunately, some of the OCAP ocean initiatives are more wishful thinking than reality-based, and some of these measures also may have severe unintended consequences for our fisheries and fishing communities.

Here is our analysis, with ratings, for these measures.

A Carbon-Neutral Future

Currently, there’s no real scientific question that industrially generated excess greenhouse gas emissions (principally carbon dioxide, CO2, and methane, CH4,) from fossil fuels are driving most global climate change. Ocean impacts are already showing up in the form of ocean acidification, disrupted marine ecosystems, ocean heat waves and much worse.

This means that de-carbonizing our economy by ending our economic reliance on fossil fuels must be a key element of any ocean (and fisheries) protection strategy. The OPAC, however, looks at only these limited options:

• Rapid Deployment of Offshore Wind Energy [Rating: Problematic at industrial scale]: Not surprisingly, the renewable energy goals set by OCAP are the goals of the Biden administration (set by Executive Order) to have 30 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind available by 2030, with 15 GW of floating offshore wind power by 2035. But so far, this has been a mandate without adequate analysis.

No one knows what coastal industrialization on this scale might do to fragile ocean ecosystems, and still very little effort is being made by energy regulators to prevent major losses of fisheries, either through out-and-out physical displacement or from ecological impacts that damage fish stocks.

OCAP does acknowledge this problem by saying it will “expand offshore wind and marine energy in an environmentally responsible manner that considers the needs of all users of those lands, coasts and waters by publishing and periodically updating an Offshore Wind Leasing Strategy.”

But that seems suspiciously like just kicking that particular “fishing impacts” can down the road to some future study, long after those impacts have already occurred.

PCFFA has written extensively about the potential (but still avoidable) threats that massive coastal wind energy developments may pose to our ocean fisheries (see Fishermen’s News, January 2020, “What to Do About Ocean Wind Farms,” and more recently in August 2022, “Offshore Wind Energy: Benefit or Boondoggle?”).

The scientific and economic juries are both still out on whether massive offshore wind energy development is even a good idea. And much more needs to be done to minimize the potential negative impacts on local coastal fisheries.

The lead fishing-interests group on this issue is Responsible Ocean Development Alliance (RODA, of which PCFFA is a member.

• Developing Green Maritime Shipping [Rating: Good idea, but the technology does not yet exist]: Massive cargo boats plying the seas today use diesel-fuel engines, and are clearly a source of carbon dioxide, albeit it a very tiny source compared to the rest of the world’s transportation system. The OCAP goal is to achieve zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the international shipping system worldwide by 2050.

Where this hits the commercial fishing fleet is making the shift from engines powered by fossil fuels to hybrid hydrogen fuel cells and electric engines. To its credit, the entire U.S. fishing fleet is now grappling with that transition (see Fishermen’s News, February 2023, “An Energy Revolution in the Commercial Fishing Fleet?”).

• Carbon Sequestration in Sub-seabed Geologic Formations [Rating: Partly baked idea. No such method exists on an industrial scale]: It sounds like a quick fix to just take excess CO2 from factories and inject it into the seabed in places where it will not likely return in the next few centuries.

Unfortunately, no such seabed carbon sequestration projects have been implemented in the U.S. What technology exists elsewhere is still primitive and unproven and ratcheting this technique up to industrial scale would be extremely expensive.

On this one, policymakers should have to ask these questions: Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to make less carbon dioxide at the factory-level to begin with? And if this sort of mitigation has to be done to maintain modern factory production, why should mitigation costs be externalized to taxpayers and not charged to the company making both the pollution as well as the profits?

• Marine Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) Technologies [Rating: Very little science supporting this technology; high risk of unintended ecological consequences]: Intact ocean ecosystems are naturally quite good at taking carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the form of reefs, ocean sediments and in plants and animals. The idea behind this CDR program, however, is to artificially encourage nature to do a lot more a lot faster—but primarily through chemical means, including adjustments to ocean chemistry (such as artificial iron/nutrient fertilization) to greatly accelerate the marine carbon biological pump.

Again, these techniques have little science to support them, and would be very expensive to deploy at an industrial scale needed to make any significant difference. The scale of the problem itself is massive, with world fossil fuel CO2 annual emissions at about 37.49 billion metric tons in 2022 and still steadily rising.

A far more cost-effective solution is simply to stop as much of the CO2 emissions as possible at the source, by retooling and decarbonizing the factories that produce it. And the unknown dangers of disrupting the entire Earth’s ocean ecosystem, with the possibility of unintended and irreversible ecological consequences, is daunting.

This mostly hypothetical and highly speculative carbon-capture technology is also being championed by the very fossil-fuel industry that created this problem, and offered by them as an excuse to continue using fossil fuels at the same rate or greater—so long as the taxpayers (and not their own companies) are paying for these mitigation costs.

Accelerating Nature-Based Solutions

• Blue Carbon Storage Systems [Rating: Restoring damaged natural ocean ecosystems provides multiple fishery benefits—if done correctly]:  OCAP says this mitigation method will “advance the protection, conservation, restoration and sustainable management of coastal and marine habitats that naturally store carbon (blue carbon) … through nature-based solutions.”  OCAP also would “include the protection, conservation and restoration of  blue-carbon habitats, which also provide social, environmental and biodiversity benefits, as a priority in coastal resource planning and management decisions.”

In theory, this is what sustainable fisheries management, coupled with various marine habitat protection and conservation programs, already do. But prioritizing restoration of marine habitat areas primarily on the basis of their potential biological storage of carbon would be a new direction for those existing efforts.

If done right, such marine habitat conservation efforts could be beneficial to our industry and sustainably support future fisheries. If done wrong, it could be disastrous.

• Creating Climate-Adaptive Marine Protected Areas [Rating: Could be helpful or harmful for fisheries—depending on how it is done]: Uh oh, here come MPAs once again, this time justified as climate-change mitigation.

As we have written recently (Fishermen’s News, April 2023, “Principles of PCFFA Regarding Marine Protected Areas”), MPAs could potentially benefit nearby fisheries if thoughtfully created for that purpose, for instance, in key nursery areas for protecting specific species’ life stages to aid abundance.

But the vast majority of MPAs out there, particularly in California, have not been well thought out, and the purposes for which many exist are still unclear. Nor will fixed-location MPAs mean much when the species they seek to protect have migrated elsewhere due to climate change.

The devil will be in the case-by-case details as to whether and where additional MPAs make sense as climate-change mitigation tools.

Enhance Coastal Community Resilience to Ocean Change

• Climate-Ready Fisheries … and Fishing Communities [Rating: A mixed bag.]: One of the vaguer sections of OCAP discusses how best to create “climate-ready fisheries.” Two suggestions that caught my eye are: “co-produce and deliver the products, tools, information, services and assistance to support climate-ready fishing … communities,” and also “identify, protect and restore ocean and coastal habitat essential to climate-ready fisheries, protected species and fishing communities.”

On the first issue, there is an enormous need for better (and much higher-resolution) predictive computer models on how climate change will most likely affect ocean ecosystems, and thus affect harvestable species’ future ocean habitats, migration routes and prey sources.

Such higher resolution ocean climate models are years behind terrestrial impacts modeling, but now do exist—at least for the California Current, which affects almost all U.S. West Coast fisheries. And we have some species-by-species models that show how particular species might respond to changing ocean physical conditions.

What is still necessary is the hard work of wedding the high-resolution ocean climate change models to the biological response models, thus creating a usable predictive tool for fisheries managers.

The Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR) was recently involved in one such fisheries modeling project, the Climate Change Adaptation Tools for California Current Fisheries (CATCCH) Project ( Unfortunately, its work did not receive the government funding it needed to complete Phase 2 of its modeling. This lack of key government funding is the bane of all similar modeling efforts and reflects a serious lack of agency interest in ocean fisheries.

To identify, protect and restore ocean and coastal habitat essential to climate-ready fisheries, protected species and fishing communities is a no-brainer. We need to do whatever is necessary to repair damaged ocean ecosystems so there are fewer additional marine stressors piled on top of growing climate stresses.

One of the worst ideas in OCAP, however, in this same section, is to “explore research and development to advance … the use and effectiveness of offshore infrastructure for artificial reefs.” As we wrote in Fishermen’s News, January 2023, “What to Do with All Those Oil Rigs?” the idea of magically reclassifying all the decommissioned oil rig toxic junk piles in southern California waters into “artificial reefs” is an oil-industry scam intended to allow it to skip out on all its past contractual obligations to restore damaged and highly polluted areas around those rigs. This works directly against ocean seafloor habitat restoration.

• Furthering Coast Climate Resilience [Rating: Yes!]:  The final mitigation measure proposed in OCAP is to “promote coastal community resilience strategies that are adaptive, equitable and based on best practices” and to bring in federal funding and resources to help support those local efforts.

As we noted in our Fishermen’s News, October 2022 article, “Responding to Climate Change Threats to Fisheries,” there is a lot already going on at the state and local level to plan for and respond to the challenges of climate change, particularly for coastal communities. Boosting those local efforts would be a good step forward.

What’s Missing?

Ironically, there is no mention anywhere in OCAP of prohibiting the future development of offshore oil and gas, nor supporting the far more obvious and more cost-effective technique of simply reducing the use of fossil fuels wherever possible. The first rule of climbing out of any deep hole is to stop digging. It also skips over the dangers of deep-sea mining.

However, that the obvious overarching goal of weaning our whole world economy off its addiction to fossil fuels is missing entirely from OCAP (for purely political reasons) does not make the viable and practical OCAP mitigations measures any less necessary. Now that a Plan exists, it will still take years to implement—but it’s a good start.

But it is also clear that folks from our fishing industry will have to keep engaged in the OCAP process, making sure that the agencies implement OCAP measures in an environmentally responsible way that both sustains and protects our ocean ecosystem commons, and maintains sustainable fisheries able to deliver high quality seafood to America’s tables. That will take both hard work and persistence.  

More Information on Ocean Impacts of Climate Change

U.S. Ocean Climate Action Plan (March 2023): 

Synthesis Report for the Sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCC AR6 2023): 

IPPC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (September 2019) (, particularly Chapter 5: “Changing Ocean, Marine Ecosystems and Dependent Communities.”

Glen Spain, J.D., is the Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources, as well as their General Legal Counsel.  He is also the PFMC-appointed Commercial Fisheries Representative to the PFMC’s Habitat Committee. He can be reached by email at and by phone at the PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office, (541) 689-2000.  PCFFA’s website is  IFR’s website is