As the Biden administration takes over, I've seen quite a bit of hand-wringing among stakeholders in the fishing industry.

Depending on what policies you're watching closely, that anticipation is coupled with anxiety about what may or may *not* happen next.

While I would never hold my breath for 100 percent buy-in on any policy, I hope we can get a majority speaking in a unified voice around some of the critical pieces of the 30x30 mandates. So here's my rundown on the key points.

The goal

To commit 30 percent of the nation's lands and oceans to conservation by 2030, as part of President Biden's executive order on addressing climate change.

The origin

The way-back machine takes us to a United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development Goal to "conserve at least 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on the best available scientific information."

The 30x30 language got a jump in 2020 as legislation conceived in California, where it failed to pass. It was dusted off, reformatted and expanded to become part of a suite of sweeping Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization proposals and introduced in the House last fall, titled the Oceans-Based Climate Solutions Act of 2020.

Now it has become part of the Biden administration's new climate proposals issued as executive orders. If you haven't heard, the new administration is prioritizing environmental justice. (Before you roll your eyes, note this can and is designed to work out for everyone. Read on.)

What this could mean for the fishing industry is exactly what so many stakeholders have been asking for — a seat at the table. The primary strategy for implementation of this policy is community engagement.

Various federal agencies now host language outlining the tenets of environmental justice. This is from the U.S. Department of Energy:

  • "Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
  • "Fair treatment means that no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or from the execution of federal, state, and local laws; regulations; and policies.
  • "Meaningful involvement requires effective access to decision makers for all, and the ability in all communities to make informed decisions and take positive actions to produce environmental justice for themselves."

The facts

As of today, 26 percent of our oceans are already protected as marine monuments (with 76 percent protected under gear restrictions, like bottom trawling). So, we're almost there, right? Well, kind of. The remaining 4 percent needed to get to that goal is about the size of Texas — and that's only assuming the goal is rigid and wide-ranging commercial restrictions.

The parameters of what defines a swath of protected ocean under this executive order are still TBD. There are many marine protected area champions in the mix who will no doubt be pushing for the most extreme restrictions, which leads us to:

Questions to ask

Where is the science?

Similar to the 10-year rebuilding guideline, this 30 percent requirement has no basis in science (as far as I have been able to glean). But it sure sounds catchy.

And if we got to 26 percent by 2020 (well over the 10 percent goal), then what's stopping us from getting to 30? Potentially, nothing. But I would argue that the whole process will go faster and more smoothly if all stakeholders' voices are heard. It's better to take our time up front than to backlog the process with lawsuits.

"Without genuine, meaningful participation from the commercial fishing industry, we will continue to face pendulum swings of opening and closing areas like we are seeing with the Northeast Seamounts and Canyons Monument," said Leigh Habegger, executive director of the Seafood Harvesters of America.

Consider also that there's no scientific evidence that marine protected areas are beneficial to fishery abundance, as a coalition of more than 800 seafood industry stakeholders pointed out in a November letter in response to the House legislation.

“Longstanding fisheries bioeconomics theory, which underpins contemporary fisheries management and science, holds that Maximum Sustainable Yield is achieved via exploitation of fish stocks,” the letter stated. The “implied claim — that closing 30 percent of the U.S. EEZ will result in higher long-term yields from U.S. fisheries — is a false promise, lacking a scientific basis.”

Not to mention the fact that the more you push fishermen away from closed areas, the more they fish on the open areas, which seems like a critical factor to consider.

The final argument against going at this with straight MPAs is that they're simply not a necessary tool in a country where the fisheries are extremely well managed.

“In contrast with many international contexts — where MPAs are established to remedy a profoundly broken fisheries management system and a degraded marine environment — U.S. fisheries are overwhelmingly sustainable and successfully managed to Maximum Sustainable Yield,” the industry coalition's letter stated.

Who stands to gain the most?

Certainly, fishermen can get behind climate change mitigation. And indeed, theirs are some of the most important voices to bring to the fore in this discussion.

"Climate change has pushed commercial fishermen to change their business plans, the way they fish, what they fish for, even their home ports. But when far-reaching climate legislation was drafted and filed in the House of Representatives last year (by a representative from Arizona), fishermen were shut out of the conversations," wrote Doreen Leggett, communications officer at the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance, for Wicked Local. "They may be shut out of their fishing grounds as well."

Beyond the ocean, there are some critical onshore fish habitats that could be included in the 30 percent of the land protection measures, so fishermen and seafood stakeholders ought to consider the value of being at the table for all discussions regarding oceans, lakes and coastal habitats.

“Specifically, by protecting Southeast Alaska’s transboundary rivers via international agreement, salmon watersheds in the Tongass National Forest by reinstating the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, and Bristol Bay’s massive sockeye runs through the Clean Water Act, the Biden administration can quickly demonstrate the real and positive impact 30×30 can have on Alaskans’ livelihoods and lives via tools already in the President’s toolbox," said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState.

Who stands to lose?

Those whose voices are not heard or whose needs are not acknowledged.

In short, fishermen want and have earned a seat at the table, and we encourage the new administration to bring everyone in.

“Conserving 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030 is a big deal and we must get it right if it is to be effective," said Chris Brown, president of the Seafood Harvesters of America and 2016 White House Champion of Change for Sustainable Fisheries. "If this initiative is guided by no more than simply what feels good or sounds catchy, we will not get it right."

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

Join the Conversation