Remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry at the Economist World Ocean Summit

SECRETARY KERRY:  John, thank you very much.  I’m – first of all, I’ve been listening to you and agree with everything you’ve said, and very sorry that I can’t be with you in San Francisco this morning personally, but obviously I’m happy to be able to come by video and delighted to be able to offer a few thoughts about this from the State Department.

Let me start by thanking The Economist and National Geographic for bringing together a whole bunch of influential people from so many different industries.  John, I see you motioning.  Is there a – can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Secretary Kerry, thank you very much for coming – for addressing us like this.  And I wondered if you could say a few words about the oceans, and then I might ask you one thing about your personal involvement in it.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Sure.  I was – I started.  I didn’t know whether you were hearing me or not, but it’s my pleasure to be able to be with you to share some thoughts about this.  And as I was listening to you, I was thinking about some of the challenges, obviously, of responding to this notion that restaurateurs and businesses and other people are talking about it, but we’re not necessarily doing it or doing what’s necessary.

Look, the challenge of meeting the current problems of our oceans is really one of the most complex global challenges that we face today.  As everybody knows, oceans are three quarters of our planet.  And the oceans are in trouble, just to follow up on the comments previously made.  And there isn’t any doubt about that.

But the good news is we know exactly what is threatening our oceans, and we have a very good understanding of what we need to do in order to deal with these threats.  We don’t yet have the political consensus or the urgency translated into political action.  And we know that there’s no way that governments are going to tackle this enormous challenge, frankly, without significant impetus from the private sector, the NGO community, academia, media, and others.  So that’s why I’m – I was particularly excited to take part in this session today and to simply underscore to everybody that we need a far more robust international dialogue on protecting and governing our oceans.

I’ll just share with you very quickly, coming from Massachusetts, it’s hard not to have a connection to the sea.  And I grew up with a family that has a very deep connection.  My mother’s side of the family, my ancestors, were sea merchants back in the 1800s, 1900s.  My father was a recreational fisherman, a sailor, a passionate sailor who introduced me to the ocean at age three.  And after he retired, he sailed across the Atlantic several times for the sheer pleasure and adventure of it.  And I’ve been a sailor all of my life, a fisherman, and somebody who enjoys taking a break by the sea as often as possible, and I learned early on to appreciate the wonders of the oceans.

I also learned early on how important it is to protect them, because we would go in the summer to a place right near the Woods Hole Oceanographic.  And I’d always see these marine biologists probing the waters and wondered what they were up to.   So stewardship of our oceans has been a priority for me throughout my career in the United States Senate, and I want to emphasize it is a major priority for me today as Secretary of State.

Whether you live on the coast or you live hundreds of miles from the closest beach, the fact is that every human on Earth depends on the oceans for the food we eat and for the air we breathe.  Let me emphasize that.  Most people don’t think about that, but for the air we breathe.  We depend on the oceans, literally, for the essentials of life.  And as we all know, the oceans are home to countless different species and diverse ecosystems.  And the environmental reasons for protecting the planet’s oceans should be leaping out at people.

But there are a couple of other reasons for protecting our oceans.  First, it’s an economic imperative.  Fisheries alone support a $500 billion global economy and the livelihoods of almost a billion people around the world.

The other reason that it’s important is that keeping our oceans healthy is a food security issue and therefore a global security issue.  More than one billion people worldwide depend on fish as their primary source of protein.  And most of these people live in the poorest, least developed countries, where other protein options are either too limited or too expensive for the average family to buy.

So one would think that this kind of a precious, interconnected resource would actually receive the highest level of protection.  The sad truth is that is not the case.  And as a result, the diverse, varied ecosystems of our oceans globally are challenged as never before.

To start with, there is too much money chasing too few fish.  Overfishing is an enormous problem around the world.  And I got deeply involved in this when I was chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Oceans.  Almost one third of the world’s fish stocks are currently overexploited, and most of the others are fished at the absolute maximum levels.  I regret to say that almost two thirds of the catch in many parts of the world is simply thrown overboard – it’s what you call bycatch – and the fish of choice is then taken in and sold, but there’s a much greater level of destruction to the ecosystem that takes place.  And as demand for seafood continues to grow, as it does on a daily basis, the pressure on fishermen to bring in more fish grows in what is supposed to be a sustainable fishery process.  And right now, we’re witnessing the definition of unsustainability.

Part of the problem has to do with simply keeping track of how, when, and where fish are caught.  I remember dealing with this issue with our management – our fisheries management councils around the country.  That’s very, very difficult.  And a lot of captains resist regulation because they don’t feel the science is sufficient to be able to document the decision that the public sector takes.  So it’s very, very difficult to enforce fishing regulations out at sea.

And a huge chunk of the seafood that is caught around the world is obtained in ways that are illegal, unreported, or unregulated.  So this is obviously not only bad for the oceans’ ecosystems, it’s disastrous for the U.S. commercial seafood industry and other seafood industries around the world.  And when billions of pounds of illegally obtained seafood makes its way into the global marketplace, it jeopardizes a million jobs and more than 115 billion in sales every single year.  That’s just in the United States.

The second major threat that our oceans face is record pollution that is contaminating our seas.  And I’m talking about debris, garbage that floats off the shores, but I’m also talking about pollutants that we can’t see with the naked eye – nitrogen, phosphorous, other nutrients that come from land and disrupt marine ecosystems.  And the nutrient pollution can come from hundreds of miles inland, where you see fertilizer flowing downstream and into the sea.  I saw this vividly when I was campaigning out in Iowa and in the Midwest, all of which feed into the Mississippi, through the Missouri River or other rivers.  And this kind of practice has contributed to some 500 areas throughout the oceans of the world, where marine life simply cannot exist.  And we all know they’re called dead zones for a reason.

The third major threat that our oceans face has to do with greenhouse gases, which is one of the reasons I spoke in Jakarta, in Indonesia the other day about climate change.  When we think about greenhouse gases, most people think about clouds of exhaust that’s coming from the tailpipe of a car or a smokestack at the top of a building.  But that pollution doesn’t only make its way into the atmosphere and cause climate change.  A lot of it is absorbed by our oceans, which causes them then to become more acidic and eat away at coral reefs, shellfish, and so forth.  And this has enormous ramifications all the way up the food chain and makes business harder for the billions of people who make a living selling fish or through ecotourism.

So I’ve just listed some of the formidable challenges, but the fact is – the hope is that there are solutions.  And I want to briefly mention the three tangible ways that we can begin to improve the health of our oceans, then we can talk.

First, the U.S. Government and domestic industries have made real progress in sustainably managing our fisheries.  More and more, we are learning how to do that.  We’re also trying to stop ports from importing illegally harvested fish.  There’s more that we can do on both of these fronts.  One step all nations should take is to end government subsidies to fisheries, because that just encourages overfishing and undermines the effort to have a management regulatory process that is sustainable.

Another is to implement more systematic checks on seafood delivered to ports all over the world.  In the United States, we are also exploring policies that would, for example, only allow seafood into American markets if there’s proof that the seafood was captured legally and in a way that is traceable.  All of these steps can actually help us to level the playing field for honest fishermen and better protect the entire seafood supply chain.

Second, we can – more sustainable agricultural processes will go a long way toward cutting down on nutrient pollution.  And we could also do a better job of protecting coastal and marine areas.  Today, less than 3 percent of the world’s oceans are part of a marine protected area or a marine reserve.  I’m proud that I introduced, with Gerry Studds years ago, the Stellwagen Marine Preserve off of Massachusetts.  But we need many more of these around the world.  Think about the progress we could make if just 10 percent of coastal and marine areas were protected.  And I think that’s a goal that we could accomplish and it’s one we ought to set for ourselves.

Third, if we want to slow down the rate of acidification on our oceans, protect our coral reefs, and save species from extinction, we have to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and pursue cleaner sources of energy.  It’s as simple as that.

So these steps are part of a way that we can slow the damage from climate change.  And in Jakarta last week, I spoke at length about the enormity of the threat that it poses and the urgent need for a global solution to what is simply a global challenge.  This doesn’t know borders.  It’s trans-boundary.  And every country on earth has to do all it can to reduce emissions not just for the future of marine life but, frankly, for the future of all life.

So we have some pretty clear marching orders, and I think events like this gathering can hopefully help us carry them out.  And we have to start building a consensus around a clear and effective policy agenda developed, soup to nuts, by the cooperative effort of governments, the private sector, civil society leaders, and other stakeholders around the world.

With that in mind, I can take advantage of this conference to announce that, this summer, I will be convening a two-day international oceans conference here in Washington sponsored by the State Department, and I hope that that conference will build on the progress that you make in San Francisco.  We can build on your topics and the effort that you’re making in order to sharpen our focus on this critical issue.  And I hope that many – or all of you – will come and join us, because we’re going to have to build a very significant political effort around this issue.

I told you at the outset that the oceans have been a huge part of my life for my whole life.  I know that many of you share that same experience.  So we have to do everything we can to live up to our responsibility to leave future generations the same healthy, vibrant experience that many of us were fortunate enough to live out when we were kids.  But now it’s at risk and it’s going to take huge global cooperation in order to address it.  So between this World Ocean Summit and the conference we’ll have at the State Department this summer and other conversations – I think there’s going to be one in The Hague taking place around the world – we have to summon the global cooperation so that we can take the steps necessary to protect our oceans for generations to come.

Thank you all very, very much.  It went on a little longer than I meant to, but I appreciate it.  (Applause.)

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Can I – Secretary, can I ask you just one question?  I know you’re hard-pressed for time – is that you talked about there being a global answer to these problems, and there were two particular bits on that.  One is the U.S. and the Law of the Sea.  I know you have repeatedly said that the U.S. should sign up for that.  But then secondly, whether if you look at the United Nations, whether there should be, as we at The Economist have argued and everyone here is very firmly behind, there should be a world oceans organization of some sort at the United Nations that brings all these things together.  And I wonder if you could say something about that.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, let me say something about both.  On the Law of the Sea, I wanted very much to try to ratify the Law of the Sea when I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and I’d love to ratify it now.  But we’re having difficulty with this Senate in even being able to ratify a disabilities treaty that doesn’t require the United States to do anything, but helps other countries raise the standards for people with disabilities.  So you can understand the difficulties of what we have in terms of the ratification process.  But we are committed to living by the law of the sea even though it isn’t ratified, and we will do everything in our power to live by the standards of the law of the sea.

With respect to the world organization effort or some kind of organization, of course we need a global framework of some kind by which people sign up and agree to cooperate.  But we not only need the rules, we need the regulatory enforcement process.  Senator Ted Stevens and I together took drift net fishing to the United Nations in the 1990s, I think it was, and we managed to get them banned.  But – and in most places people are adopting good practices and they’re not doing it.  But there are fishermen out there who still use drift nets, and as we all know they sometimes break off, they wind up ghost fishing.  They go up and down in the ocean according to the weight of the carcasses trapped in them, and they continue to fish even though there’s no product, which is why we banned them in the first place.

But who is there to enforce this today?  Who is there to enforce even – or even to collect globally agreed upon science by which we can make the kinds of decisions that need to be made?  So I absolutely endorse the notion, as does President Obama, that we need some kind of global understanding about how we will enforce – and what – how we will enforce regulations and what rules we will put in place in order to preserve our fisheries and manage our coastlines and do the things necessary to reduce the pollution and preserve these ecosystems.  It is going to take some kind of global understanding.

I know people resist and hate the idea.  They think:  “Wait a minute.  We have our commercial economic zone, our extended economic zone.”  Each country wants to exercise its own sovereignty, but that’s not the way the ocean works, and that’s not the way migratory species behave.  We’re all connected to these and we have to find a global structure.  I think the United Nations is the obvious one within which to try to arrive at an understanding of how we’re going to preserve this.

I’ve got to run, unfortunately, but it’s a – I hope you will keep this conversation going.