As the just released—and very alarming—2023 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report verifies, there is an across-the-board and strong scientific agreement, now supported by hard data from several independent sources, that the world as a whole is right on the precipice of another Great Extinction Event, triggered by climate change.
The current widespread decline in biodiversity is powered by insatiable human population growth and development that is devastating the natural environment. That, coupled with nearly 200 years of world industrialization that has already thrust fossil-fuel generated carbon dioxide as well as atmospheric methane (which is 21 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) up to levels well beyond the point where the world can completely avoid widespread and potentially devastating climate change.
In short, the world is heating up at a rate far faster than most plants and animal ecosystems are able naturally to adapt. The likely unraveling of these interconnected ecosystems threatens every major food web, including our own!
Many West Coast ocean ecosystems are already suffering from climate change’s “evil twin”—ocean acidification. The world’s oceans today are about 30% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution, and this level of acidification is not only inevitably going to get worse for many decades to come, as a result of already accumulated atmospheric CO2, but the peculiarities of upwellings and deep ocean currents along the U.S. West Coast tend to concentrate acidic waters in these coastlines.
Shellfish populations are already rapidly declining throughout the Pacific Northwest.
We outlined all this in the October 2022 issue of Fishermen’s News in an article entitled “Responding to Climate Change Threats to Fisheries.” That rapidly accelerating climate change will greatly affect ocean ecosystems our industry depends upon for its very existence is undeniable. Indeed, its already happening.
But our real question is, in the face of massive climate change, “What should and what can we do to maintain and protect sustainable fisheries?” Humans still have many tools, and science says that there is still time (though not a lot of time!) to at least reduce and mitigate these onrushing impacts, perhaps avoiding the worst of them—if we have the political will to use those tools.
And there is still cause for hope, as this looming world crisis is also bringing nations together to find common solutions.
Parallel to all the U.N. activities on climate change, there are also multiple U.N. efforts to protect and restore damaged ocean ecosystems. Acknowledging that climate change is “one of the greatest challenges of our time,” and the need to “act decisively and urgently to improve the health, productivity, sustainable use and resilience of the ocean and its ecosystems,” top governmental leaders gathered together for the U.N. Ocean Conference in July 2022 and adopted a renewed international commitment to science-based innovative actions. Such efforts, along with international cooperation, are essential to providing the necessary solutions to declining ocean health (see: https://tinyurl.com/4366y7e5).
Additionally, starting in 2019 the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity set an international goal of establishing strong and durable multinational habitat conservation systems.
The U.N. Biodiversity Conference (COP15) ended in Montreal, Canada, on Dec. 19, 2022 with a landmark international agreement to guide global action on preserving at least 30% of the Earth’s natural ecosystems by 2030 (see: https://tinyurl.com/t5hsxupx).
These are the origins of the now worldwide “30×30 Campaign” to which the U.S. is a signatory.
How these biodiversity preservation goals are playing out in the U.S. makes them inevitable, as well as very important, so they must be properly implemented as a buffer against looming marine extinction crises.
The international “30×30” goal was made U.S. policy by then newly inaugurated President Biden in his Jan. 27, 2021 “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad;” Sec. 214 also provided for a consultation mechanism with “fishermen and other key stakeholders” on how best to conserve these habitats in the nation’s ocean waters.
What Marine Areas Qualify as “Conserved?”
Looking at how states are responding, California is the current leader in efforts to establish coastal biodiversity protections in its own waters. This “30×30 Campaign” issue will affect all states, but looking more closely at California’s efforts can prove very instructive as to how this issue will play out everywhere.
Following the Biden administration’s lead, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “30×30” Executive Order No. N-82-20 (Oct. 7, 2020) required the California to “conserve at least 30 percent of California’s land and coast waters by 2030.” Some groups in California are using this mandate to advocate for ever more “marine protected areas” (MPAs) in various forms, although California estimates that approximately 16% of its state waters are already now within MPAs, most of them no longer allowing fishing.
Yet the record on how effective these existing protected areas have been in practice as actual fish conservation measures is mixed, according to the most recent California Department of Fish and Wildlife “MPA Decadal Management Review” (2022).
Many of California’s 124 existing MPAs were not well constructed or unclear in their purposes, and some (set up for the wrong reasons or in the wrong places) have provided no measurable conservation benefits so far.
MPAs have to be judged on a case-by-case basis, of course, but can theoretically be an effective fish habitat conservation tool, and therefore can benefit nearby ocean fisheries. But MPAs cannot be effective for conservation unless they are first designed and administered on the basis of planning and good science, not political whim, with one of their purposes being to benefit nearby fisheries—an issue we discussed in the April 2023, issue of Fishermen’s News regarding standards such MPAs should (but often fail) to meet.
Another growing problem is that MPAs are designed out of a terrestrial mindset for fixed geographic ocean locations—but the species they may be designed to protect are now more highly mobile than ever, often relocating to cooler waters in response to climate change.
After a few years, MPAs may no longer harbor the very species they were originally designed to protect, thus no longer serving their original purpose.
For these and other reasons, many fisheries biologists and fish managers no longer favor adding more MPAs to the coastal checkerboard array of largely disconnected “protected” areas.
To implement California’s Executive Order, in April 2022 its Natural Resources Agency published “Pathways to 30×30 California,” which established specific criteria for what qualifying “conservation measures” would count toward the state’s new 30% goal. For California coastal waters, a geographic area will be considered “conserved” if it meets the following definition and criteria:
- Areas under government ownership or control, primarily designated to protect species and their habitats.
- Areas under perpetual easements that protect species and their habitats.
- Areas with species and habitat protection designations that have gone through a formal rule-making or other enforceable decision-making process not subject to simple reversal.
Provides verifiable eco-system level conservation benefits:
This also means these areas are subject to ongoing monitoring and management to ensure conservation objectives are met.
Designated MPAs clearly qualify. But what about federally designated National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS)?
California is home to four NMSs, three of which cover almost 41% of state waters: the Greater Farallones NMS, Monterey Bay NMS and Channel Islands NMS.
The California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), the agency managing California’s “30×30 Program” for marine resources, notes that while sanctuaries provide important conservation benefits for marine life and habitats, each has different regulations and policies and must be individually assessed. Then it can be determined whether the NMS meets California’s definition of “30×30 Program” conservation.
The OPC is also assessing whether Indigenous Marine Stewardship Areas would qualify as conserved under its “30×30 Program.” But the majority of the controversy on what to count (or not count) toward California’s internal 30% goal are “other effective conservation measures (OECMs).”
What About PFMC Fisheries Habitat Protections?
The Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) designates Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) areas, which are delineated through federal rule-making procedures for federal as well as state coastal waters.
Can these be counted toward the marine biodiversity conservation 30% goal under the “30×30 Program?” At present this is still an open question, although at the fishing industry’s request OPC staff are planning to work with PFMC staff on this analysis.
The PFMC can also create an area closure (like a Rockfish Conservation Area) or put limits on gear to protect fish habitat, whether or not it is designated as EFH. However, the PFMC must identify and describe EFH for the council’s managed species and must describe both its fishing and non-fishing impacts.
These descriptions can be found in the council’s fishery management plans, which are themselves adopted through the federal rulemaking process and updated roughly every five years. The council also can identify habitat areas of particular concern, which are a subset of EFH that highlight especially important habitat areas or types.
The PFMC does indeed, even as technically just an advisory body to the Secretary of Commerce (who must sign off on final fishery management plans), still have considerable resources to bring to bear to conserve marine biodiversity through its EFH designation systems. A very good case can thus be made that these designations are both durable and, through council management, provide a number of important marine biodiversity conservation benefits. These EFH areas should, therefore, be counted toward California’s 30% coastal waters conservation goal.
Do Fisheries Have Anything to Fear from the “30×30 Program”?
Our industry is right to be skeptical about the “30×30 Program” in both California and other coastal states—but also just as right to keep engaged in the process and to fully participate in and help shape efforts to conserve and restore the very habitat that supports our industry.
We’re already under pressure from proposed major offshore wind and aquaculture developments that would take away ocean areas now open to fishing. But better conserving key fish habitats also can benefit us in many ways—if properly and thoughtfully done.
Just as with MPAs, if well constructed and clearly purposed to protect ocean biological integrity generally, “30×30 Program” conservation areas can benefit nearby ocean fisheries by protecting key nursery areas from which fish species abundances can be built up over time.
However, as we have seen with MPAs, poorly planned protection areas also can be a huge waste of otherwise harvestable resources, or even detrimental to sustainable fisheries by forcing fishing efforts into ever smaller (and thus more heavily impacted) remaining harvest areas.
The OPC has this to say about whether PFMC-designated EFH will also qualify toward California’s 30% coastal conservation area goal, from its recent publication “Achieving 30×30 in California’s Coastal Waters,” available at www.opc.ca.gov/30×30:
“California’s coastal waters include a range of spatial management measures, including areas created to protect water quality or maintain sustainable fisheries. Understanding the extent to which these, and other spatial management areas are durable and provide ecosystem-level benefits that meet the definition of a ‘30×30’ conserved area is a top priority for OPC; however, the first step is having a comprehensive inventory of these spatial management measures in state waters.
“OPC and (the) California Ocean Science Trust are convening scientific experts to develop a centralized current inventory of spatial management measures in state waters. The final inventory will be shared publicly to solicit feedback and ensure it represents an accurate and comprehensive list. Following inventory completion, OPC will initiate a policy and scientific evaluation of these measures to determine long-term durability and (the) extent to which ecosystem-level benefits are provided by each area.”
“During this evaluation, we will determine whether any of these areas can be categorized as ‘other effective conservation measures or OECMs’—areas that are achieving long-term ecosystem benefits despite not being designed or managed explicitly for the purpose of conservation —and therefore count toward the ‘30×30’ goal.”
So, the bottom line for West Coast commercial fishermen is this: Keep engaged in developing the “30×30 Program,” making it work to benefit our fisheries, not restrict them. It’s in our best interests to support meaningful and strong ocean ecosystem and biodiversity conservation measures to assure abundant future fisheries.
But it is also our duty as stewards of the fisheries to make sure this program is not just another fantasy, delusion or fad, nor thought of as yet another kind of magic wand to “protect” biodiversity by closing down fisheries that are already sustainably well-managed and which provide an important food source for tens of millions of people.
Your voice matters. Use it.
Note: The 2023 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report is available at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr.
Glen Spain is the Acting Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), 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 email@example.com and by phone at the PCFFA/IFR Northwest Regional Office: (541)689-2000. The PCFFA’s website is www.pcffa.org. The IFR’s website is www.ifrfish.org.