Can Joe Biden kick-start stalled progress on ocean conservation?

The US president has announced a raft of positive marine measures and appointments, but must work with China to make a breakthrough on subsidies, the high seas and Antarctic protection
<p>A gentoo penguin on Barrientos Island, Antarctica. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry recently announced the US would support the creation of two new marine protected areas in the Antarctic (Image © Andrew McConnell / Greenpeace)</p>

A gentoo penguin on Barrientos Island, Antarctica. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry recently announced the US would support the creation of two new marine protected areas in the Antarctic (Image © Andrew McConnell / Greenpeace)

In the opening months of President Joe Biden’s administration there has been a sea change in ocean policy as the United States moves to re-engage with the international community to tackle climate change.

This engagement could have significant consequences for a host of marine issues, from harmful fishing subsidies and a high seas biodiversity treaty, to efforts to create marine protected areas (MPAs) in Antarctica. To achieve progress, though, observers say the Biden administration must work with China, given the country’s influence on ocean policy.

“China is working on climate change, they participated in the Biden summit on that, and so it seems like they’re really interested in engaging in these multilateral forums on ocean issues,” said Andrea Kavanagh, project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean initiative.


Biden's proposed year-on-year increase in funding for NOAA, a key government agency responsible for understanding climate change, oceans and coasts

The details of many Biden policies remain to be announced. But the administration has signalled its strong support of ocean issues by appointing respected scientists and environmentalists to key positions at agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which had been demoralised, defunded and politicised under the previous president, Donald Trump.

Biden, for instance, has proposed a record US$6.9 billion budget for NOAA (a 26% increase on the previous year) and has nominated a former top NOAA scientist, oceanographer Rick Spinrad, to run the agency. John Kerry, the administration’s climate envoy, founded the Our Ocean conference when he served as secretary of state in the Barack Obama administration. Marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, who has become the deputy director for climate and environment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, served as NOAA’s chief under Obama.

The Biden administration has pledged to protect 30% of US land and waters by 2030. In May, it tried to globalise that “30×30” commitment when it joined a communiqué issued by G7 nations calling for protection of 30% of the world’s oceans, also by 2030.

The communiqué committed the nations to work toward concluding negotiations over a high seas biodiversity treaty by the end of 2021 and supported efforts to expand a network of marine protected areas in Antarctica.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly slowed international negotiations, 2021 could prove a pivotal year to finalise long-running talks on damaging fishing subsidies, the high seas biodiversity treaty and the creation of vast new marine protected areas in Antarctica.

Fisheries subsidies

For two decades, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has attempted to reach an agreement by its 164 member states to ban harmful fisheries subsidies that promote overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

During that time, China’s overseas fishing fleet has expanded and become the world’s largest, at nearly 3,000 vessels. Researchers in 2016 determined that US$20 billion of US$35 billion in annual global fisheries subsidies were harmful. The result: one-third of fish species are being harvested at biologically unsustainable levels, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Rashid Sumaila, a University of British Columbia fisheries expert and close observer of the WTO, is optimistic that a deal may finally be in sight – for two reasons. One is that the new director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, has made fisheries subsidies a priority. She is convening a ministerial conference in July with the aim of finalising negotiations. The other reason is the new environmentally friendly US administration.

“Hopefully, these two recent events might just help the WTO and the world get the job done after 20 years of trying,” he said. “That would be a big win for marine biodiversity, fish and fishers who want to fish sustainably.”

The Biden administration’s specific stance on the negotiations remains to be seen. “So far the administration has been focusing on climate change and have not said much about the WTO negotiation on fisheries subsidies,” noted Sumaila, adding that it “seems to be holding to the US position that the country wants an ambitious agreement. I hope they are pushing for this behind the scenes.”

Cooperation between China and the US, two of the biggest subsidisers, is key to breaking the stalemate at the WTO, according to Sumaila. For years, negotiations have been hampered by disagreements over whether developing countries would be given more time to phase out subsidies. WTO member states are allowed to declare themselves as developing nations, as China has done.

“One single action that would help is for the US to work with China and come up with a joint communiqué stating that the nations will support reaching an agreement at the upcoming WTO Ministerial [conference],” he said. “I think such an agreement between the US and China would incentivise other countries to sign on.”

Antarctic marine protection

Antarctica is one of the regions most impacted by climate change and fishing. It’s also where the international community, even at its most divided, has come together to protect the continent’s unique biodiversity. At the height of the Cold War in 1959, the US, Soviet Union and 10 other countries signed the Antarctica Treaty, committing the parties to peaceful exploration.

An international convention established the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 1982. CCAMLR currently has 26 member states, including China and the US. The parties’ approval of the 1.57 million km2 Ross Sea marine protected area, which came into effect in 2017 and banned commercial fishing for 35 years, created the world’s largest MPA.

Temperatures in Antarctica are rising three times faster than the global average, according to a 2020 study

It was to be part of a network of protected zones to limit the effects of climate change and a burgeoning krill fishing industry. Krill, a small crustacean, is considered a “keystone” species because it converts energy from the sun – by eating single-celled plants called phytoplankton – into food for larger marine species including penguins and whales. Commercial fishing turns hundreds of thousands of tonnes of krill into fish meal to feed farmed fish and pets, as well as krill oil for human health supplements.

Krill populations are also being affected by climate change, with temperatures in Antarctica rising three times faster than the global average, a 2020 study found.

However, efforts to address these two threats through the establishment of three additional MPAs – in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea, and around the Antarctic Peninsula – have foundered in recent years, largely due to objections from China and Russia. China deploys a krill fishing fleet in the Southern Ocean and Russia has taken steps to establish its own krill fishery. Other nations fishing for krill in the past decade include Norway, South Korea, Japan, Chile, Poland and Ukraine. A proposed MPA requires unanimous approval by member states.

Antarctica MPAs map

Efforts to break the impasse received a boost in April when Kerry announced the US would join other CCAMLR states to press for the approval of the East Antarctica and Weddell Sea MPAs. The proposed Antarctica Peninsula MPA is still being evaluated by CCAMLR’s scientific committee.

“The US coming on as an official co-sponsor is great news,” said Kavanagh of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s just showing that there’s this global push and a global awareness that we need to have these protections.”

She noted that negotiations over the Ross Sea MPA dragged on for years until a group of nations coordinated a campaign to persuade China and Russia to sign off on it. “Obama himself got involved, especially when talking with China,” said Kavanagh.

In virtual negotiations, you don’t have any of the hallway meetings or the receptions and dinners where most of the work gets done.

She said a similar approach is needed to reach consensus on the East Antarctica and Weddell Sea MPAs. Kerry’s involvement is an encouraging sign, given his former position as secretary of state and his experience in negotiating with China.

“John Kerry in his role as the climate envoy knows how important MPAs are to provide resilience against climate change,” said Kavanagh.

Prospects for face-to-face negotiations, however, look dim. CCMALR is headquartered in Tasmania, Australia, where its annual meeting is held. But in May, the Australian government announced it would keep its borders closed to international visitors until mid-2022.

“It’s just tough because in the virtual meetings you don’t have as much time for negotiations because of time differences,” Kavanagh said. “And you don’t have any of the hallway meetings or the receptions and dinners where most of the work gets done.”

High seas biodiversity treaty

In early March 2020, Kerry helped facilitate a “High Seas Treaty Dialogue” with government leaders in Monaco. The event highlighted issues to be taken up three weeks later at the United Nations when delegates were to convene for what was to be a final session to complete a landmark treaty to protect biodiversity on the high seas.

Among other provisions, the treaty would allow for the creation of marine protected areas in the 58% of the ocean that lies beyond national jurisdiction, provide for the sharing of marine genetic resources among nations and require environmental impact assessments for certain high seas activities.

brisingid sea stars
See also: High seas treaty: race for rights to ocean’s genetic resources

There was little consensus, though, on the specific terms of those provisions or how they would be implemented as delegates prepared to gather in New York last year. Then, days before negotiations were to begin, the United Nations and the rest of New York City went into lockdown as the pandemic spread.

With in-person negotiations postponed, delegates began meeting virtually in monthly video sessions, according to Peggy Kalas, coordinator of the High Seas Alliance, a coalition of major environmental groups founded in 2011 to advocate for a high seas biodiversity treaty. The talks are informal, which means they don’t carry the weight of formal negotiations.

Kalas said it’s too early to know how the Biden administration’s environmental policies will affect the treaty negotiations, noting that ocean-related senior positions in the US State Department remain vacant.

But observers view Kerry’s interest in the high seas biodiversity treaty as promising.

“We’re hoping that we can perhaps get Kerry to engage” in treaty negotiations, Kalas said.

In-person negotiations currently are set to resume in August, though some observers expect talks to be postponed as other UN negotiations have been recently. In that event, virtual discussions will likely continue.

“We are all very exceedingly Zoomed out,” said Kalas.