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New maps could help Biden administration reach 2030 goal to protect oceans

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Atlantic Ocean waves

President Biden announced his “America the Beautiful” initiative last May to restore and safeguard lands, waters and wildlife in the U.S. It also marked a goal for the country to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.

A year later, a vast majority of the Mid-Atlantic Ocean remains unprotected.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen spoke with Ellen Pikitch, endowed professor of ocean conservation science in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, about new maps her team has drawn that better preserve the waters off the coast of New York to Virginia.

WSHU: Your research shows waters in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean are unprotected. How so?

EP: Well, only about 0.3% of the Mid-Atlantic Ocean within the U.S. jurisdiction is protected in any way at all.

WSHU: How was that possible?

EP: Well, you know, that's a funny question in a way, because so, you know, way before, there were a lot of people in the United States and a lot of people using the waters, everything was kind of de facto protected; That they weren't protected by law, or by rule. But so few people were using the waters that they were pretty much protected from harm.

And today, the situation is really reversed. We have to — through laws, regulations, policies — designate areas as being protected. And that's a process that takes time. It takes political will. It takes energy. And it just hasn't happened very much for the Mid-Atlantic region.

WSHU: So your team basically drew new maps for these Marine Protected Areas, as they're called. Who designates these areas, typically? And what benefit do they provide to, say, policymakers?

EP: There are a lot of different ways that an area could be considered a Marine Protected Area. One thing that they all have in common is that their main objective is the conservation of nature. But the exact mechanism can vary.

So some examples are national parks that extend into the ocean. One that I visited recently was the Olympic National Park on the West Coast off of the state of Washington. There are also national marine sanctuaries. We have several national marine sanctuaries. There are national monuments. So many different mechanisms with one objective and that is the conservation of nature.

One area in the Mid-Atlantic that is kind of shovel ready. And very important is the Hudson Canyon. Now, the Hudson Canyon has been proposed to become a national marine sanctuary. But that process has been stalled. There hasn't been any action on it for quite some time. Why is this such an important area? The Hudson Canyon is huge. It's about the size of the Grand Canyon. And it extends way offshore. It goes very, very deep. It has species of deep sea corals that live for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It's got plentiful fisheries, and it straddles New York and New Jersey.

WSHU: How well have these areas worked historically in areas that are better protected?

EP: Previous research that I've been involved in shows that it's not just whether or not an area is protected, but how well it's protected, that really affects what kind of outcomes we can expect. And areas that are fully protected, or strongly protected, have been shown to produce the greatest benefits for people and for nature.

So what the paper shows is how much of the United States is actually protected? And one of the most striking results of our study is that 26% of the United States waters are already protected. So we've made a lot of progress in the United States toward reaching this “30 by 30” goal, which is being adopted more and more by countries around the world. However, 96% of the protection is in one ecosystem. And that is the Central Pacific Ocean. We've done a good job of protecting that region. But we've left many other regions of the U.S. nearly completely unprotected. And the Mid-Atlantic is one of the weakest, protected areas. Alaska is another one; most of the mainland US is doing very poorly in terms of amount protected, compared to the Central Pacific Ocean.

The other thing our study found — we looked at how strong the protection is. Is it strongly protected, fully protected, weakly protected. And the strongest protection tended to be again in this one ecosystem: the Central Pacific Ocean. So the rest of the country, the protections that do exist, are just not so strong.

Some areas that are protected — they're in a designated place, that is whose main objective is a conservation of nature — they may allow things like mining, or aquaculture, or fishing with destructive fishing gear. So even though they're “protected”, there are a lot of things happening in the water that make them less than fully protective.

WSHU: What's at stake here in the Mid-Atlantic? Can you describe some of the ecology there — the ecosystems — that are threatened?

EP: One of the earliest findings — Marine Protected Areas have been studied for decades — and what we expected to see early on was that if you have a strongly or fully protected area, the fish in that area will live longer. And because they're living longer, they'll grow bigger. And because they're growing bigger, they'll have more offspring. And you'll have a much bigger population of fish and other marine life within the marine protected area.

But interestingly, what we found is that in many cases, that benefit extends outside the Marine Protected Area, and can help to sustain fisheries outside the marine protected zone. So we call that the spillover effect. And that's one of the things that's pretty well documented now in a number of places around the world.

Another thing that, that we know, that Marine Protected Areas can do, and this is a more recent finding, is that they can help with resilience to climate change. It's been shown now that areas that are strongly protected, are more resilient to climate change.

For example, coral reef habitats. Those habitats when the temperature gets too warm, they sometimes go through a process called bleaching. And if the temperature stays hot, too long, then they can die. In places where the reefs are well protected, then we find that a lot of those rays can come back quickly and don't die.

In the Mid-Atlantic, and in the Northeast, we have a remarkable variety of ecosystems and habitats. And many of them, you know, many of the coastal habitats and the estuaries include things like sea grasses, eel grasses, these we know for a long time are very important habitats, nursery habitats for fish and other species. But what we're really learning now is that they're also very powerful allies in the fight against climate change. Sea grasses actually sequester more carbon -- inch for inch -- than tropical rainforests do.

So if we can get some protected areas and help protect our sea grasses and expand our seagrass areas, we can do a lot to change our fate in terms of climate change.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.