Territory Restrictions: Shifts in America the Beautiful

Big Sur coastline
Big Sur coastline, looking north to Bixby Canyon Bridge. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Robert Schwemmer, CINMS, NOAA.

The Biden Administration wants to place limits on 30% of America’s land and sea territory – an area about the size of India. The extent, or degree, of those restrictions is under development now. The goal is to have boundaries in place before 2030 – or 30×30 for short.

This effort originates from President Biden’s Executive Order – “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” which requires recommendations “to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.” It has been dubbed “America the Beautiful.”

NOAA has a lead role in this project and last October published a request for information (RFI) “seeking public input on how NOAA should, using its existing authorities and associated measures, conserve and restore America’s oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.”

In addition, NOAA is charged with developing an “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas” which will provide “a baseline assessment of the amount and types of lands and waters that are currently being managed for conservation and restoration purposes, as well as track progress of conservation and restoration efforts going forward.”

NOAA’s outreach started with basic questions pertaining to NOAA’s existing authority for addressing “disappearance of nature, climate change, and inequitable access to the outdoors;” identifying or updating conservation areas, and using new scientific knowledge and “Indigenous Knowledge,” also referenced as ITEK – Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Public Comment

NOAA received almost 400 comments in response to the RFI, including, of course, substantive comments from many Pacific fishery organizations.

This extensive interest is not surprising, considering the huge amount of territory at stake and that the three top concerns are somewhat subjective. The “disappearance of nature” and “inequitable access to the outdoors”—both are topics with rather difficult metrics. New federal controls over 30% of US territory? That’s not a squishy concept.

A basic concern with NOAA’s RFI is that it doesn’t specify what’s meant by “conserving.” Does that mean a pristine status, largely off-limits – the goal for national parks, for example? Or does “conserving” reflect the standards, say, for national forests – protected but still open for a range of uses, from recreation to logging and mining, not to mention roads and highways. Importantly, NOAA does not want its new conservation effort to come on like a steamroller. It lists eight core principles for development, including a collaborative process, supporting local conservation efforts and “conservation and restoration approaches that create jobs and support healthy communities.”

Comments from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which works closely with NOAA, exemplify the concerns among Pacific fishers. And many of the Council’s comments are referenced by other fishery groups, such as the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Freezer Longline Coalition.

Defining Conservation Areas

Regarding the core issue of “conserving” the Council wrote that “the first step in determining whether new conservation areas are needed or can be identified is to define the term ‘conservation area’.”

For the Council, a conservation area is an “established, geographically defined area, with planned management or regulation of activities that provides for the maintenance of biological productivity and biodiversity, ecosystem function and services (including providing healthy, sustainable seafood to a diverse range of consumers).”

The Council asserts that with this definition, “conserving” is already met by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), adopted in 1976, that established a 200-mile coastal Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The MSA also established the eight federal fishery Councils, including the NPFMC.“All fish resources and marine fish habitats are fully conserved under the MSA through the establishment of annual catch limits, and other marine ecosystem components,” the Council wrote.

There are also more than 540 special marine conservation areas off Alaska, including 238 fishery area closures in the EEZ and over 300 areas established in state waters.

The Council states that there’s more to conservation than just quantifying a total amount of territory; it advises that a better measurement of progress is tracking changes in biodiversity. Indeed, the Council notes that NOAA itself prepares annual ecosystem status reports. These are precautionary, the Council wrote, and can serve to track progress, and make changes as necessary, to reach “America the Beautiful” goals.

Recall that this conservation effort is to delay or affect “climate change.” Without being specific, the Council wrote that “climate change is affecting marine resources.” It suggests that NOAA use its authority to help better understand climate change and it references an upcoming Council report and recommendations, another partnership with NOAA, that will summarize climate resilience and adaptation.

Regarding climate, the Council suggests maintaining support for fishery ecosystem surveys which “form the fundamental basis of fisheries management in the North Pacific.”

“However,” it then adds, “NOAA should also recognize that while climate is an important driver, it should not become the singular management consideration. In some cases, other biological, social and economic factors that directly impact fish and protected species abundance may be more immediate than climate change impacts and should be addressed by resource managers as needed.”

Indigenous Knowledge

One specific question for NOAA is how it should consider “Indigenous Knowledge” (IK) which the UN defines as “the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings.” Just how IK stands vis-à-vis the hierarchy of computerized climate modeling is not clear. The Council wrote that it is “working to incorporate Indigenous Knowledge into its fishery management program” and it is developing a roadmap about when and how it can inform Council planning processes, presumably regarding climate change.

A December 2021 update on “30×30” progress notes that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Environmental Quality are committed to elevating ITEK in Federal scientific and policy processes. A memorandum cites the concept as “one of the many important bodies of knowledge that contributes to scientific, technical, social and economic advancements and the nation’s collective understanding of the natural world.”

The employment and economic impacts from setting aside 30% of U.S. territory are, of course, front and center for Pacific fishery groups. And as noted, NOAA, too, wants an approach that creates jobs and supports communities.

This concern is clearly addressed in comments from the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group and the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries. Just how “conservation” is finally defined is central to their livelihoods.

“If conservation is defined in a way that means no, or severely curtailed, extractive activities,” the Group/Alliance wrote, “then such a mandate will needlessly wipe out our industry at a time when the fragility of U.S. food security is being made clear.”

The Group/Alliance takes issue with Marine Protected Areas (MPA). MPAs are “certainly one tool,” they write, but they have consequences for fishers. Severe restrictions may cause species to migrate or be replaced by different ones. They contend that if “conservation” is interpreted as an adaptive process, and includes regulation and management for long-term sustainability, then the U.S. is already meeting its 30% goal for fisheries and ocean territory. “Biodiversity,” the Group/Alliance wrote, “must not be defined as a static condition.” They ask a rhetorical question: “Is anything in nature permanent?”

The Group/Alliance addresses social and environmental justice directly.

“Negatively impacting commercial fishing,” they wrote, “will fly in the face of social and environmental justice goals that state leaders and the President have stated are of value.” They add that the supply chain is heavily represented by people of color, from direct harvest through processing and delivery. “We hope,” they write further, “the U.S. will value and not sacrifice the good paying jobs, many with benefits, that exist in seafood processing from California and U.S. companies.”

Finally, the Group/Alliance references another concern, mentioned by other Pacific fishers, the influence of outsiders, i.e., non-fishing interests, on federal decision makers, Those representatives have agendas frequently at odds with commercial fisheries, they wrote. A nagging concern is whether federal officials are biased towards such non-fishing groups and that their information, unfairly, is accorded higher value.

One example, cited by the Seafood Harvesters of America and the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, references an academic paper titled “A global network of marine protected areas for food,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in October 2020. In October 2021, Academy editors retracted the peer-reviewed article, as data errors mischaracterized the condition of the fisheries studied.

Although the paper was retracted, it’s conclusions continue to impact fishery debates. The trawlers association points out that the paper is still cited as a valid source and reference within the public’s “America the Beautiful” comments.

“We support a science-based system,” the association wrote, “and while we welcome diverse perspectives and discourse, we strongly believe that the underlying science needs to be credible and accurate in order for people to maintain faith and confidence in the system.”

“New conservation areas must be thoughtfully sited, designed and managed according to robust science, not science advocacy or the loudest voice in the room,” the Seafood Harvesters wrote.

Regarding next steps and a likely timetable, a spokesperson said that “NOAA is currently reviewing and conducting an action-based analysis of the comments received about how to effectively implement the “America the Beautiful” initiative” and that some findings could be released “in the coming months.”

A beta version of the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas, according to NOAA, will be available later this year. 

Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy, environmental and related regulatory issues.