If We Protect Our Ocean, It Can Protect Us

Chair Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) along with 25 original cosponsors has reintroduced the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act on World Oceans Day, June 8th,2021. This is the type of visionary bill we need for this moment, recognizing that the ocean is a powerful source of solutions to the climate crisis. The bill encompasses so many important ocean issues, from tackling offshore drilling to prioritizing voices and resources for Tribal, Indigenous, and other communities to addressing ocean health issues and restoring U.S. leadership in international ocean governance.


This year has been monumental in action on climate and the ocean. The Biden Administration has paused leasing for offshore drilling, taken steps to scale up offshore wind-energy production, set a goal to cut shipping and port emissions, and launched efforts to protect ocean habitats and coastal communities. The Biden Administration declared June "National Ocean Month,” saying that,

“It is imperative that we take proper action now to ensure that the ocean continues to thrive.  During National Ocean Month, we recognize the central role of a healthy ocean in sustaining all of our lives, and pledge to find innovative ways to conserve, protect, and restore our ocean.”

When this bill was introduced last year, it was the most ambitious ocean climate legislation to date. It will help communities most at risk from the impacts of climate change and is forward looking in efforts to restore and protect important ecosystems, encourage responsible offshore wind development, and prepare our fishery management tools to be more responsive to climate change. Many pieces of this bill have bipartisan support – which speaks to national importance of coastal resiliency and ocean health.

Here are some new additions to the bill:

Tax on Virgin Plastic

Plastic is everywhere, that includes the ocean. The bill places a 5-cent excise tax on virgin plastic that is used in manufactured single-use products. The funds raised from the excise tax will go into a new fund that will help fund other ocean climate legislation.

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Innovative Programs for Marine Mammals

This legislation contains smart and proven solutions to make our seas safer for whales and builds off provisions from the first version of the bill. It maximizes opportunities for ships and whales to co-exist by protecting whales from ship strikes. It also focuses investment in new programs to reduce underwater noise from vessels and seeks to reduce the carbon pollution that is radically altering the climate and the ocean.

Better integration of Tribal & Indigenous Knowledge

The bill makes improvements to various sections to ensure Tribal consultation and participation takes place in a meaningful way. The bill also establishes a new grant program in the National Marine Sanctuary System to support climate research and resilience with Indigenous and local knowledge of marine and natural areas.

Important studies

Science is the foundation of ocean-climate solutions, and this bill authorizes additional studies looking into public access to the nation’s coasts and Great Lakes with a focus on opportunities and barriers for low-income communities, communities of color, and Tribal and Indigenous communities, and rural communities. It also authorizes a new study on black carbon and its impact in the Arctic.

Here are some provisions we’re seeing again that are just as important:

Stopping Offshore Drilling in New Areas

In order to meet climate goals and reduce our carbon emissions, we must put a halt to new offshore drilling. Beyond exacerbating the impacts of climate change, expanding offshore drilling in U.S. waters would threaten countless marine species and harm tens of millions of people. This bill helps towards this goal by putting an end to offshore oil and gas leasing and to seismic exploration for mineral resources in all areas of the outer continental shelf except the central and Western Gulf of Mexico planning area, which is currently where the vast majority of offshore drilling occurs.

Helping Protect Ocean Habitats 

Healthy ocean ecosystems and wildlife populations are better able to withstand and adapt to the effects of climate change. Marine protected areas protect biodiversity and contribute to ocean resilience in the face of climate change. Scientists have said that protecting lands and waters is critical in our defense against climate change and to save the diversity and abundance of life on earth. This bill will support the Biden Administration’s goal to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030 to safeguard our future.

Expanding Renewable Energy

Offshore wind has incredible potential as an ocean-based climate solution.  This bill sets a national goal of producing 30 gigawatts by 2030 for offshore wind energy and calls for the development of best practices and increased funding to ensure that offshore wind development expands without harming marine life. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the bill requires shipping vessels to report their CO2 emissions every year and creates incentives for fuel efficient fishing vessels.

Supporting Climate-Ready Fisheries

Climate change is already disrupting our fisheries. Fish stocks are emerging in new geographic areas as conditions change and face increased threats from extreme events like heat waves and algal blooms that can devastate fish populations. To transition to climate ready fisheries, we must be more adaptive and flexible as changes continue to occur. This bill supports the development of innovative tools and approaches to increase the capacity of fisheries management to adapt to climate change.

Improving Ocean Water Quality

Ocean health impacts both the environment and those who live near it. Harmful algal blooms and ocean acidification have detrimental effects on our seafood, tourism, recreation, and communities. This bill looks at how to improve our understanding of ocean acidification by incentivizing development of management or adaptation options, creating a coastal community vulnerability assessment to identify those most dependent on coastal and ocean resources, and requires the ocean acidification strategic plan to consider socio-economic impacts, among other things. The bill also makes areas hit by harmful algal blooms eligible for disaster relief and emergency assistance. 

Increasing Blue Carbon & Coastal Resiliency

“Blue carbon,” which is the carbon stored in the ocean by seagrasses, salt marshes, and mangroves, is a key part of an ocean climate solution. These same ecosystems that store up to four times the amount of carbon in a forest also protect coastal communities by limiting impacts from erosion, storms, and flooding. This bill initiates new efforts, as well as supports existing activities, to understand, map, protect, and restore blue carbon ecosystems. The bill specifically authorizes $10 billion to support coastal restoration projects with a priority given to projects that will benefit low-income and communities of color. These projects help the environment, communities, and the economy. 

Reengaging in International & Tribal Ocean Governance

To fully address the ocean’s role in tackling climate change, we need a coordinated international effort. The bill restores and strengthens United States leadership in the international ocean space by honoring the U.S. commitment to the Arctic Council to cut black carbon emissions. Further, the bill creates a Tribal Resilience Program to support Native American leaders and provide grants for climate resilience activities. The bill also recommends that the United States ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to improve our ability to engage in international ocean management. 

This bill highlights the ways the ocean is part of the climate solution and comes at the right time. As Chair Grijalva shared today, 

“Federal policy has neglected our oceans for far too long, especially with whole ecosystems already disappearing to climate change. Ocean health is human health, which is why this bill is based on real public input rather than polluter demands or special interest favors. Every day we wait to update our ocean laws for the modern world is a day we’ll look back on with regret.”

As this exciting bill advances through Congress, we’ll continue to fight for our vulnerable coastal communities, marine wildlife, and ocean climate action. 

About The Author

 Valerie Cleland advocates for policies that protect and restore our oceans. Prior to joining NRDC, Cleland was a NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellow in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation where she worked to develop, analyze, and guide oceans legislation through the committee process. She originally hails from the Pacific Northwest where she worked as an environmental scientist on marine and aquatic projects for a small environmental firm and taught sea kayaking. Cleland attended Tufts University and received a master's of marine affairs from the University of Washington. She is based in NRDC's Washington, D.C. office.  

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This article originally appeared on On Earth