US Pacific Territories and the America the Beautiful Initiative Can Deliver Ocean Climate Solutions

The Biden administration has issued an ambitious call to action through its “America the Beautiful” initiative to conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of US lands and waters by 2030. As in the ocean, that means providing conservation to the United States. exclusive economic zone (EEZ): The oceanic area that extends 200 miles beyond the American shores. In particular, US territories in the Pacific have some of the largest EEZs in the country, making this region critical to achieving conservation and climate goals in the ocean.

Although the total ocean area controlled by the United States is vast, at more than 11.4 million square kilometers, only 21 percent of that ocean surrounds the contiguous United States. Most of the American waters are around Alaska, Hawaii and overseas territories. In fact, the combined ocean surrounding the US Pacific territories is only 3.3 million square kilometers, almost twice the land area of ​​Alaska, which accounts for 29 percent of the total EEZ of all States united

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What are EEZs, marine reserves and well-enforced protected areas?

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): An “exclusive economic zone” is an oceanic area where the United States or other coastal nations have jurisdiction over natural resources. It extends no more than 200 nautical miles from the coast and is adjacent to the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of ​​the United States. The EEZ of the United States is 11,351,000 square kilometers and the second largest in the world, only after France.

Marine Reserve: A marine reserve is the strongest type of protected area, generally restricting all harmful human activities, particularly fishing. When implemented well, marine reserves lead to more fish, bigger fish and greater biodiversity, and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Well established protected area: Protected areas only bring benefits to nature and people when they are implemented and implemented well. This begins to occur when a management plan is enacted with planned activities to mitigate threats and achieve conservation goals, such as staffing or resource monitoring.

Where are the US overseas territories?

The United States owns several overseas territories in the western and central Pacific, a constellation of American islands, including Guam and Saipan, Wake Island, and Palmyra Atoll, which straddle the date line international and span four time zones. Many of the islands are home to indigenous peoples with unique histories and cultures that date back thousands of years. These indigenous groups include, but are not limited to, American Samoans, Chamorros, Refaluwash, and several other Micronesian groups, all with deep cultural ties to the ocean and proud fishing traditions.

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Pacific Islanders in US territories proudly carry the burden of ocean conservation, but they need capacity and financial support from the federal government to make these protections lasting for future generations.

The region is also home to the Mariana Trench, six times longer than the Grand Canyon and deeper than Mount Everest. This area remains one of the most unexplored habitats in the world, and its coastal waters contain a variety of different ecosystems, including underwater volcanoes, abyssal plains, and hydrothermal vents.

These tropical ocean waters have some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the United States: the islands are surrounded by migrating whales and turtles, coral reefs, and hundreds of species of fish, some of which are found nowhere else place on the planet However, many of these species and habitats are sensitive to extreme threats from climate change, from rising seas that wash away their coasts to warmer, more acidic waters that become inhospitable to marine species in the which people depend on to feed their families and practice their culture.

Although these islands are small, their surrounding ocean areas are vast and have been protected as areas of national significance through monument and sanctuary designations. In particular, the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, the Remote Pacific Islands Marine National Monument and the American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary are three of the largest ocean sanctuaries on the planet, with the highest levels of protection that may be offered in American waters. When combined with Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, the US Pacific Islands make up 99.5 percent of the nation’s marine reserves, the strongest type of protected area that can be designated in the ocean.

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The science of ocean protection

Successful marine protected areas share all or most of the following five key characteristics: they are 1) marine reserves, 2) well-enforced, 3) established for 10 years or more, 4) large in size, and 5) isolated by deep water . and sand Pacific monuments meet most of these criteria, and when their size is considered, their contributions to both the America the Beautiful initiative and the global effort to protect 30 percent of the ocean in 2030.

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However, size and level of protection do not tell the full story. Protected areas that are understaffed and underfunded have been shown to do a poor job of protecting nature; the same can be said of areas that have not been designed or managed with local input. The ability to engage with local Indigenous communities and territorial governments and manage these protected areas is hampered by time zones, capacity and distance, as most management decisions are made by federal staff based in Hawaii, not the territories themselves.


of US marine reserves are located in the Pacific Islands

To put that distance into context, Guam and Saipan are as far west of Hawaii as New Orleans and Minneapolis are to the east. This situation is most obvious with the Mariana Trench Monument: although it is more than 20 times larger than Yellowstone National Park, there is only one staff in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands. Designated in 2009, the Mariana Trench and Remote Pacific Islands Marine National Monuments do not yet have definitive management plans. Community response to the federal government’s lack of commitment, procurement, and programs has ranged from disappointment to outright hostility, making it even more difficult to advocate for additional and ongoing federal conservation initiatives.

Policy recommendations

The US Pacific territories can help the country achieve its conservation goals, but only if that work is done with Indigenous peoples and knowledge leading the way. Specifically, the Biden administration must continue to strengthen its relationship with these territories in the following ways:

  • Prioritize US Pacific territories with jobs, programs and funding: The Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative should prioritize ocean conservation for these territories, as they are home to the largest and most heavily protected marine areas with the highest levels of biodiversity in the United States. The first step to actively managing marine national monuments in these territories—which were designated in 2009 by the Bush administration—is to develop and publish final management plans so they can be implemented. As noted above, 99.5 percent of U.S. marine reserves are located in the Pacific Islands, but with the exception of Hawaii, they do not receive federal funding commensurate with the conservation burden they carry . In the long run, this lack of funding will harm America’s ability to protect ocean resources because capacity and funding fail to reach frontline ocean conservation communities.
  • Shifting management decision-making power out of Hawaii and back to the territories: In particular, efforts should be made to involve the indigenous American Samoans, the Chamorros, and other Micronesian peoples and territorial governments who are long-time stewards and owners of these resources. The United States should also explore more opportunities for territories to co-manage protected areas in their own waters. This would increase the access of diverse indigenous peoples to participate in the management of natural resources and is in line with the Justice40 initiative of the Biden administration.
  • Collaborate with territorial governments to determine the unique needs of their citizens regarding ocean conservation: The Biden administration recently announced a federal policy establishing a policy of consultation with Native Hawaiians. This should be further extended to all indigenous peoples in the Pacific territories. In addition, the federal government uses other models to engage with Native peoples in Alaska and the contiguous United States, and these should be explored to determine how best to engage with Indigenous peoples on the islands of the Pacific
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Pacific Islanders in US territories proudly carry the burden of ocean conservation, but they need capacity and financial support from the federal government to make these protections lasting for future generations. Designating protected areas is not enough; these areas must be followed up with sound management, staffing and funding plans. The Biden administration has the opportunity to designate, implement, and improve the management of national marine monuments and sanctuaries in the Pacific territories and count them toward the goals of the America the Beautiful initiative. But to be successful, this process must engage indigenous peoples and coastal communities.

The authors would like to thank Steve Bonitatibus for his contributions to this column.

Authors note: Angelo Villagomez, CAP senior researcher and co-author of this column, is an indigenous Chamorro from the Northern Mariana Islands.


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