After growing up exploring the colorful tide pools along the Oregon coast, as an adult I’ve found my way home to the West Coast, with its stunning coastline and remarkable marine life. I came back to become a card-carrying marine scientist — during my Ph.D., it wasn’t unusual for me to be at the edge of a Pacific Coast tide pool at 4 a.m., headlamp illuminating the shimmery algae and bright purple and orange sea stars clinging to rocks. I study the interactions of life beneath the waves, briefly exposed by the tide. My curiosity goes beyond why the sea star is purple or how climate change stresses their health. My work is centered on learning how ocean ecosystems, and the people who depend on them, can thrive in the future.
This week marks Capitol Hill Ocean Week in Washington, D.C. Scientists, managers and decision-makers are gathered to help ensure that ocean places across the U.S. are healthy and resilient, so they can support plant, animal, and human life years from now. We have a national target to conserve at least 30% of its ocean by 2030, in recognition of the important role a healthy ocean plays in our lives. The country’s marine protected areas (MPAs) — parts of our waters where destructive activities are limited — are key to achieving this target and a healthy ocean.
I worked with 30 scientists across the country on a recently-released scientific paper assessing the state of U.S. MPAs. Although we have made excellent progress, we still have work to do to improve our system of MPAs so they protect marine biodiversity across U.S. regions and bring the benefits of a healthy ocean to diverse communities. 98% of waters around the continental U.S. are not in any type of MPA. Protecting more of the U.S. ocean can help ensure long-term ocean health.
But the 30% target is not just about quantity — it’s also about quality and diversity, and it’s about equity. There are multitudes of marine ecosystems in U.S. waters, and that is matched with the diversity of human communities that rely on those ecosystems for everything from livelihoods to cultural survival. The best available science indicates that all of these places should include areas set aside from extractive and destructive activities and protected as an investment for the future.
Not all marine protected areas are created equal: Different levels of protection allow different impacts from human activities like fishing, mining, development and aquaculture. Because so few habitats off the coasts of the continental U.S. are protected in MPAs, they do not benefit from the outcomes provided by well protected MPAs — abundant wildlife, more resilient ecosystems, and associated cultural and economic benefits. We don’t just need more MPAs; we need more effective, representative and equitable MPAs.
This next wave of ocean conservation is an opportunity to create MPAs that are led by and reflect the goals of the surrounding communities while effectively conserving biodiversity. A good example of this idea in action is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which has been designed and managed in partnership with Native Hawaiians who charted a path for the area to be both effective and equitable.
The ocean, like the rest of the world, is changing in response to human impacts; it’s time our approach to marine protection changed with it. When I bring my own kids out to the Oregon coast — those same tide pools I grew up exploring — I am reminded of the magic the ocean brings to people. And I feel the weight of responsibility to do my part to ensure a healthy ocean for my kids and the next generation.