Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chief Jane Lubchenco is one of the primary supporters behind massive climate change legislation that advocates for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) prohibiting commercial fishing across at least 30 percent of the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by 2030.

"This bill provides hope because it provides a pathway for tackling multiple crises simultaneously, she told members of the US House of Representatives, Committee on Natural Resources Tuesday during a nearly 2.5-hour hearing on the expansive bill. "The time for climate action is now."

Lubchenco said the measure to impose MPAs is supported by a report published last year by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy that concluded that a set of five ocean-based mitigation solutions could achieve as much as 1/5 of the carbon emission reductions needed to achieve the 1.5-degree Celsius Paris Agreement target by 2050.

"In protecting genetic, population, and species diversity, Fully and Highly Protected MPAs can enhance the resilience of ecosystems, protect stores of carbon in the sediment, and protect the ability of blue carbon ecosystems to capture and sequester additional carbon," she testified. "The greater the genetic diversity, the greater the likelihood there will be genotypes that are suited to a climate-impacted world. Numerous scientific analyses have concluded that to achieve the biodiversity and climate benefits of MPAs, at least 30 percent of the ocean should be safeguarded in Fully and Highly Protected MPAs."

Lubchenco, appointed to her NOAA role in 2009, has previously advocated for similar ocean protection measures and served in the role through 2013. Her tenure was not without controversy. In 2010, some lawmakers asked for Lubchenco to be replaced following misconduct discovered within the agency.

In past interviews with IntraFish, she’s called ocean acidification the “osteoporosis of the sea” – as the oceans absorb the increasing carbon dioxide in the air, acid levels increase, making difficult conditions for coral and other seabed organisms.

Not everyone agrees

Ray Hilborn, A professor for the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, testified against portions of the bill during the hearing, questioning MPAs as a way to achieve climate goals.

He noted "marine protected areas are simply the wrong tool for adapting to climate change" as they would neither protect sensitive habitats or non-target species, such as birds and mammals.

Overfishing in the United States is rare, and MPAs would also not increase yield from fish stocks. according to the fisheries scientist.

"The evidence shows that when MPAs are put in place and stocks are well managed, abundance goes up inside the closed area, and goes down outside with no-net gain," he said. He added that prohibiting commercial fishing via the MPAs would "would cause 70 percent of US oceans to see increased fishing pressure from the vessels that moved out of the 30 percent closed, and thus potentially be less resilient to climate change."

"As someone who has worked in fisheries for over 50 years, and done field work in Alaska for almost 40 years, I know that global warming is real, and climate change is the major challenge to American fisheries," he said. "The key question is what are the most appropriate tools to respond?"

Hilborn pointed out that US fish stocks are healthy and increasing in abundance, and that US fisheries management is already "highly precautionary."

He also pointed to research from the National Academy of Sciences that showed "overfishing is causing only a 3-5 percent loss in potential yield from US fisheries, whereas precautionary

underfishing is causing far more."

Hilborn said reducing US fish production will result in either increasing foreign imports "from places with lower environmental standards" or relying "on more land-based production."

He said commercial fishing's impacts on non-target species such as birds and mammals is "the major challenge to sustaining our oceans and producing food from the ocean."

Climate change is affecting fisheries already, according to Hilborn, including the movement of pollock in the Bering Sea northwards, and North Atlantic right whales moving into areas of intense lobster and crab fishing.

"The US has an admirable set of laws and institutions that can do this. The Regional Fisheries Management Councils have the authority, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other legislation gives Councils the tools to respond to climate change. We don’t need a massive overhaul of existing law to tackle the challenge," he said.

On Monday more than 800 members of the seafood community signed a letter, going into significant detail about how MPAs would harm preservation efforts under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

While the outgoing Trump administration has taken a laissez faire attitude to climate change and ocean policies, incoming US President Biden's cabinet is signaling a higher level of engagement with the world at large. The Democratic Party is also behind MPAs, stating in its 2020 platform: "We will protect our oceans—vital buffers against the impacts of climate change—through fisheries management programs and additional designations of marine protected areas."

A sweeping climate bill

The 324-page measure, introduced by Democratic Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, also asks for reduced shipping emissions, calls for more support of offshore renewable energy, and tackles systematic injustice as it relates to data reporting and indigenous fishing communities.

"It's probably the biggest, most ambitious ocean and climate bill this committee has ever considered, and it’s not perfect," said Democratic Congressman Jared Huffman of California of the measure.

He said while he is confident the bill will move forward, that "concerns raised by the fishing community can and will be resolved."

Florida Democratic Representative Darren Soto, a member of the House committee, commented on the importance of passing the bill, particularly in light of Joe Biden winning the US presidential election.

"We just had an election and climate change was on the ballot," he said.