Days after taking office, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping new executive order to conserve 30% of the nation’s total land area and 30% of all waters it controls by 2030. 

It’s not yet known how the so-called “30 by 30” plan — a bold if daunting goal to protect more of the planet’s natural environment and biodiversity — will affect Hawaii and U.S. Pacific territories. The report on how to even approach the conservation target isn’t supposed to be done for another 30 days or so. 

Nonetheless, commercial U.S. fishing interests across the Pacific are already watching closely, and members of the council that oversees those interests bristled last week at the idea of expanding the vast ocean region’s protected areas.

That group, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, is eager to learn more about the Biden order, dubbed “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” 

United Fishing Agency's Wilbur Caliri receives a load of fish from a fisherman to be sold at the morning's auction to seafood buyers in an open competitive bidding environment Wednesday, December 5, 2018. Every day starts early on Pier 38 where fishermen can be found six days a week unloading their fresh catches to be sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)
Crews receive a load of fish to be sold at the Honolulu Fish Auction in 2018. Fishing interests in the Pacific are closely watching new efforts to expand conservation of habitat and species across the U.S. under President Joe Biden. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

It wants to know exactly what defines “conservation” under the Biden 30 by 30 plan — and whether it would lead to more no-fish zones such as the one within one of the largest conservation area on earth: the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which encompasses the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. 

Currently, the order’s definition of conservation remains vague. 

According to Wespac’s longtime executive director, Kitty Simonds, the group also intends to inform the Department of the Interior of the actions it’s taken since the 1990s to help protect the Pacific ecosystem.

 “We in the Pacific are carrying the burden of this whole 30 by 30 thing,” Simonds said during the council’s multi-day meeting last week. 

Wespac, she said, could offer suggestions to other regions. 

“We don’t need any advice but we can give advice. We have lots of advice,” Simonds said.

To be sure, the Pacific does already contain an outsized share of the nation’s marine protected habitat. Some 52% of U.S. controlled waters in the Pacific fall within a protected zone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

That compares to 26% across the nation’s entire exclusive economic zone, which encompasses all U.S. marine waters. Overall, some 1.2 million square miles of U.S.-controlled seas fall within a protection area, according to the Marine Protection Atlas.

About 4% more is needed to hit the 30% target in Biden’s order. Officials say much of that could come from less-represented areas, such as Alaskan waters or the Caribbean Sea.

Hawaii, as a state, is already recognized as a leader in ocean conservation, said Justin Brashares, a professor with UC Berkeley’s environmental sciences department. “I don’t think the U.S. government wants to go and sort of meddle. It wants to respect states that are already invested in this,” he said. 

Still, Brashares said that the 30 by 30 plan emphasizes biodiversity protection, and “Hawaii has to always be part of that picture because of its incredible biodiversity.”

Biden’s order requires that local parties weigh in on the conservation plan first. 

Specifically, it calls for Interior and federal officials at other departments to get input from state, local, tribal and territorial officials, as well as key stakeholders including fishermen, as a way to “encourage broad participation in the goal.” 

Brashares said he thinks the plan’s eventual definition of conservation will allow for some sustainable uses that don’t degrade the underlying habitat.

Hawaii’s Initiative Is Moving Slowly

Researchers have determined that the 30% by 2030 benchmark would not just reduce extinction threats but also minimize the impacts of climate change, keeping the planet’s temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S.’s new conservation goals should be relatively easy to reach on the oceans, Brashares said.

It’s the land component that will be more challenging, he added. Just 12% of the nation’s lands are protected, meaning the plan will require the addition of an area four times the size of California.

Biden’s federal order resembles a state-level initiative that Gov. David Ige launched in 2016 to “effectively manage” 30% of Hawaii’s nearshore waters by 2030.

“We are a microcosm of our planet Earth. We cannot afford to mess this up,” Ige said in announcing Hawaii’s “Marine 30×30 Initiative” at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature conference held in Honolulu that year.

The state effort remains in its early stages, however. 

“Phase I” is expected to run through this year, according to a memorandum signed last year by the state, the Hawaii Community Foundation and another philanthropic group, the Resources Legacy Fund. 

The initiative’s second phase is slated to run through 2024, according to that agreement, with subsequent phases, tasks and “deliverables” to follow.

Longtime Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds on new federal conservation initiative: “We don’t need any advice but we can give advice. We have lots of advice.” Nick Grube/Civil Beat

At the Wespac meeting last week, Ed Watamura, a Hawaii council representative, said he liked how the state’s 30 by 30 program focused on active management, which could allow for fishing, versus taking an outright “preservationist attitude.”

He hoped that the federal 30 by 30 plan would follow suit.

“As a fisherman and an advocate for fishermen, I’m always interested in exactly how the fishermen will be engaged in this process, right down to specifics,” Watamura said.

Still, large swaths of the Pacific remain off-limits to fishing in an attempt to preserve numerous marine species for generations to come. 

In addition to Papahanaumokuakea, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which surrounds Johnston Atoll and other low-lying islands, and the Rose Atoll monument in American Samoa waters, all help boost the Pacific territory where commercial fishing is prohibited. 

In 2016, the Papahanaumokuakea boundary was expanded from 50 miles offshore to 200 miles, increasing its area from nearly 140,000 square miles to nearly 600,000. 

However, Wespac and the Hawaii Longliners Association strongly opposed that landmark expansion, which made Papahanaumokuakea at the time the largest protected area on the planet. They argued that sustainable commercial fishing could still take place there if properly managed.

Between Papahanaumokuakea and the no-fishing zone around Johnston Atoll, “there’s no other fishery in the nation that’s been excluded from U.S. waters to the extent that the Hawaii longliners have,” said Eric Kingma, the HLA’s executive director.

Global Efforts On The Way

Kingma said the longliners are concerned not just with the new federal 30 by 30 order, but also a similar, global 30 by 30 initiative that’s being developed under the United Nations.

According to Brashares, 100 nations or so have expressed a willingness to sign and join that non-binding international goal at the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China this October.

Kingma said he worries the move could create more no-fishing zones that would further limit the longliners’ access across the western Pacific.

“What are we left with? We’re left with a highly confined and restricted fleet that is Hawaii’s largest protein-producer,” he said. “We are definitely concerned with the stated objective of closing 30 percent of waters.” He further worries that foreign fishing fleets might ignore any new boundaries and fish in prohibited zones anyway. 

Brashares acknowledged that the U.N.-led effort will spur some “very difficult discussions and decisions ahead at the international level.”

The prospect of a global 30 by 30 has already raised some challenges, he said. For example, countries will have to avoid establishing “paper parks,” or conservation areas in name only with no budget for any type of enforcement or management.  

There are also questions of equity and who gets displaced in order to protect these habitat areas, Brashares said. Nonetheless, many in the scientific community believe it’s justified in order to preserve them for future generations, he added.

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