U.S. Plan to Protect Oceans Has a Problem, Some Say: Too Much Fishing

New details of the Biden administration’s signature conservation effort, made public this month amid a burst of other environmental announcements, have alarmed some scientists who study marine protected areas because the plan would count certain commercial fishing zones as conserved.

The decision could have ripple effects around the world as nations work toward fulfilling a broader global commitment to safeguard 30 percent of the entire planet’s land, inland waters and seas. That effort has been hailed as historic, but the critical question of what, exactly, counts as conserved is still being decided.

This early answer from the Biden administration is worrying, researchers say, because high-impact commercial fishing is incompatible with the goals of the efforts.

“Saying that these areas that are touted to be for biodiversity conservation should also do double duty for fishing as well, especially highly impactful gears that are for large-scale commercial take, there’s just a cognitive dissonance there,” said Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, a marine biologist at Oregon State University who led a group of scientists that in 2021 published a guide for evaluating marine protected areas.

The debate is unfolding amid a global biodiversity crisis that is speeding extinctions and eroding ecosystems, according to a landmark intergovernmental assessment. As the natural world degrades, its ability to give humans essentials like food and clean water also diminishes. The primary driver of biodiversity declines in the ocean, the assessment found, is overfishing. Climate change is an additional and ever-worsening threat.

Fish are an important source of nutrition for billions of people around the world. Research shows that effectively conserving key areas is an key tool to keep stocks healthy while also protecting other ocean life.

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