Marine Biodiversity has a Platform: The Scientific Community Can Help Catalyze Action

Part of the marine biodiversity blog series


Marine Biodiversity has a Platform: The Scientific Community Can Help Catalyze Action

When I and my colleagues began developing the Marine Biodiversity Assessment Framework that led to our January 2024 paper in the journal One Earth (New framework reveals gaps in U.S. biodiversity protection), we did not imagine the United States would commit to developing a National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy. Our goals in the beginning of the Marine Biodiversity Dialogues project were two-fold: (1) to call attention to the need to explicitly manage for the health of marine biodiversity, and (2) to raise awareness around the need for existing and future protections to be guided by data on marine biodiversity in U.S. waters.

Several years later, and there are now multiple policies in addition to the National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy that prioritize marine biodiversity, from the White House Ocean Climate Action Plan to the President’s commitment to protect 30% of lands and waters by 2030. Marine biodiversity has never had such a platform. And we in the scientific community have a responsibility to help managers and policymakers translate words into action.

To catalyze action, research must be relevant and useable.

We did not develop the Marine Biodiversity Assessment Framework in a vacuum. Throughout its creation, I and my co-leads, Drs. Emmett Duffy of the Smithsonian Institution and Daniel Dunn of the University of Queensland, continually briefed federal managers and policymakers at the Department of the Interior, NOAA, the White House, and Capitol Hill on our progress. We reached out to NGOs and other stakeholders; we participated in public events – both in person and virtual – to share what we were doing. These efforts allowed us to socialize the Framework, but more importantly, to get a wide range of feedback on how to better align it with decisions.

Not everything was perfect – we still have much work to do to operationalize the Framework (see the next phase of Marine Biodiversity Dialogues on what’s to come) – but this kind of engaged and collaborative research should be the norm. And not just with managers and policymakers, but also other knowledge holders, rights holders, stakeholders, community groups, Indigenous leaders and more.

To catalyze action, data collection must be collaborative and curated.

Timely, accessible, and accurate information on marine life is necessary for effective protection of biodiversity that is fundamental for our social and economic security at the local, state, Tribal Nation, and national level. However, data on marine life today is collected by many parties using many different methods and we do not have systems to curate or collate the resulting streams of data. Lack of extensive coherent data harms our ability to effectively manage multiple uses of the ocean. It makes it difficult to recover or sustain ocean resources through conservation plans developed jointly with resource users.

A National Strategy can better organize the data we have between federal and state agencies, academia, and private sector initiatives and improve the collection of new biodiversity data in alignment with management needs. In addition, such a strategy would make data more accessible to support a collaborative and inclusive approach (two key principles of the America the Beautiful Initiative).

To catalyze action, research and data should help advance multiple initiatives.

As scientists, we have a responsibility to better demonstrate scientific tools that can be used across multiple management initiatives, not just one. Flexible tools can allow us to engage with managers and policymakers working toward different objectives. These efforts can break down silos and help us recognize common needs.

The Framework, for example, approaches this by forming a basis for managers and communities to ground any action under any mandate in national-level knowledge of marine biodiversity distribution. The Framework also allows systematic characterization of biodiversity over time; thus, we could arguably track how species and habitats are changing and responding to management interventions.

Some key examples of how the Framework can be used across initiatives:

  • Implement high-level commitments: In terms of spatial protections, quality matters over quantity. The Framework is crucial to fulfilling the president’s commitment to protect 30% of land and water by 2030. It does so in a manner that prioritizes biodiversity by promoting a network approach, or advancing marine protections that are ecologically representative, foster connectivity between habitats, and consider the dynamic nature of coastal and marine habitats.
  • Inform existing mandates: The Framework can inform any existing mandate that involves area-based management – from the National Marine Sanctuaries Act to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act – that help protect critical habitats and protected or endangered species by identifying where those species are.
  • Develop climate adaptation: The Framework can be used to assess climate resilience of protections by incorporating future species and habitat distributions and assessing how biodiversity distributions change over time. This is important to meaningfully implement the White House Ocean Climate Action Plan, foster climate-resilient fisheries, climate-informed habitat conservation and restoration, and any other climate adaptation measures.

To catalyze action, knowledge production must uplift many knowledge holders.

I have discussed marine biodiversity in this blog, but we must also foster knowledge diversity. Scientists must bring their individual expertise to a greater diversity of tables, working with the Indigenous knowledge holders, stakeholders, and managers who understand crucial information about biodiversity and can use scientific insight in their decision making.

As Marine Biodiversity Dialogues moves forward, the next step is to do just that with communities in several key regions – Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and Salish Sea. In each place, a variety of participants, such as Indigenous leaders, local officials, managers, commercial and recreational industries, and local NGO representatives, are working with the Task Force to highlight local relationships with marine biodiversity and discuss how addressing community needs can strengthen ecosystem structure and resilience.

In summary: we must break out of our bubbles, meet on common ground, and work together. Only then can we forge ahead and create truly innovative solutions to protect our precious oceans and coasts.