Welcoming Remarks at Our Ocean Conference

Cathy, thank you very, very much. Welcome, everybody, distinguished guests all. We have many government leaders, many people, as Cathy mentioned, from foundations, from NGOs, from various interested entities. We are really delighted to have such an extraordinary expert concerned group come together to discuss this really critical issue. And I am personally very, very grateful to the leadership of our terrific Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment – it’s a big package, obviously – who has been working diligently to put this together. You can tell from the surroundings this will be interactive; there will be a lot of visual input to digest and a great deal of science to document what we are talking about here over the course of these next couple of days.

But I’m really grateful to my team here at the State Department that has worked overtime under Cathy’s leadership to help bring everybody together here today, and I thank you all for coming. I welcome you to the State Department, to the Loy Henderson Conference Room, particularly those of you who are representing countries from around the world, the private sector, civil society, academia, as well as many, many people joining us online via livestream through state.gov. And I hope many more people will join us over the course of the next two days.

As many of you know, convening a conference like this has been a priority of mine for some period of time. I really started thinking about this when I was still in the Senate and we wanted to try to pull it together. And then last year we did, and as you know, we had a political moment here in Washington – that’s polite diplomatic-ese – which prevented us from going forward at that time. But candidly, I think it’s worked for the better because it gave us more time to think about how to make this conference perhaps even more effective and how to maximize what we’re doing here.

A commitment to protecting the ocean, which we all share, has really been a priority of mine for a long time, as Cathy mentioned a moment ago, literally from the time I was growing up as a child in Massachusetts when I first dipped my toes into the mud off Woods Hole Oceanographic in that area of Buzzards Bay and the Cape and was introduced to clamming and to fishing and all of those great joys of the ocean. I have had this enormous love and respect for what the ocean means to us. I went into the Navy partly through that and I had the pleasure of crossing the Pacific both ways on a ship and passing through many different parts of the Pacific Ocean region. It’s sort of in my DNA. My mother’s family was involved way, way, way back in the early days of trade through the oceans. And indeed my father was a passionate sailor who, in his retirement, found a way to sail across the ocean several times.

So I learned very early on to appreciate this vast expanse of the ocean, so vast that three-quarters of our planet is really ocean. Someone might have called our planet Ocean, not Earth, if it was based on that, but obviously it is not. Stewardship of our ocean is not a one-person event; it’s a nation event, it’s a country event, it’s a universal requirement all across this planet. And I tried very hard when I was in the Senate as chairman of the Senate Oceans and Fisheries Subcommittee where we rewrote our Magnuson fishery laws on several different occasions, created the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary, the Coastal Zone Management Act, enforcement, flood insurance, rethinking it – all these things that have to do with development and runoff and non-point source pollution and all of the things that concern us as we come here today.

And that is the concern that I bring to this effort as Secretary of State now. The reason for that is really very, very simple. And for anyone who questions why are we here when there are so many areas of conflict and so many issues of vital concern as there are – and regrettably, because of that, I will not be at every part of this conference because we have much to do with respect to Iraq and other emergencies that we face. But no one should mistake that the protection of our oceans is a vital international security issue. It’s a vital security issue involving the movement of people, the livelihood of people, the capacity of people to exist and live where they live today. The ocean today supports the livelihoods of up to 12 percent of the world’s population. But it is also essential to maintaining the environment in which we all live. It’s responsible for recycling things like water, carbon, nutrients throughout our planet, throughout the ecosystem – “system” is an important word – so that we have air to breathe, water to drink. And it is home to literally millions of species.

Protecting our ocean is also a great necessity for global food security, given that more than 3 billion people – 50 percent of the people on this planet – in every corner of the world depend on fish as a significant source of protein. The connection between a healthy ocean and life itself for every single person on Earth cannot be overstated. And we will hear from scientists who will talk about that relationship in the course of the next hours and days.

The fact is we as human beings share nothing so completely as the ocean that covers nearly three quarters of our planet. And I remember the first time I really grasped that notion. It was in the early 1970s when the first color pictures of Earth from space were released, the famous blue marble photographs. And when you look at those images, you don’t see borders or markers separating one nation from another. You just see big masses of green and sometimes brown surrounded by blue. For me, that image shaped the realization that what has become cliched and perhaps even taken for granted – not perhaps, is taken for granted – is the degree to which we all share one planet, one ocean.

And because we share nothing so completely as our ocean, each of us also shares the responsibility to protect it. And you can look at any scripture of any religion, any life philosophy, and you will draw from it that sense of responsibility. I think most people want their children and their grandchildren to benefit from a healthy ocean the same way that we’ve been privileged to. And they want to do their part to be able to ensure that that is the case.

But here’s the problem: When anybody looks out at the ocean – we’re all sort of guilty of it one time or another – when you stand on a beach and you look out at the tide rolling in, you feel somehow that the ocean is larger than life, that it’s an endless resource impossible to destroy. So most people underestimate the enormous damage that we as human beings are inflicting on our ocean every single day. When people order seafood from a restaurant, most of the time they don’t realize that a third of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited, too much money chasing too few fish, and nearly all the rest are being fished at or near their absolute maximum sustainable level on a level on planet that has 6 billion people and will rise to 9 over the next 30, 40, 50 years.

Most people aren’t aware of something called bycatch, where up to half or two thirds of the fish in a particular catch are not actually what the fisher was looking for and they’re simply thrown overboard. And when people go swimming or surfing along the coast, often they don’t realize that pollution has led to more than 500 dead zones in the ocean, areas where life simply cannot exist, and that together those dead zones add up to an area roughly the size of the state of Michigan here in the United States. When people walk through an aquarium and they see and learn about the marine world, they usually don’t realize that because of climate change, the basic chemistry of our ocean is changing faster than it has ever changed in the history of the planet. And if it continues much longer, a significant chunk of marine life may simply die out because it can no longer live, no longer survive in the ocean’s waters.

The bottom line is that most people don’t realize that if the entire world doesn’t come together to try to change course and protect the ocean from unsustainable fishing practices, unprecedented pollution, or the devastating effects of climate change, then we run the risk of fundamentally breaking entire ecosystems. And as you’ll hear throughout the course of this conference, that will translate into a serious consequence for the health and the economies and the future of all of us.

The good news is that at this point we know what we need to do to address the threats facing the ocean. It’s not a mystery. It’s not beyond our capacity. Everyone in this room is aware of the effective steps that people are taking already, both large and small around the world.

In Latin America, NGOs like Paso Pacifico are helping fishers to improve their sustainability by engaging those fishers both in monitoring their catches and in the process of selecting new marine-protected areas.

In Africa, local volunteers – volunteers – take it on themselves to collect the trash that floods from the streets to the beaches during the periods of intense rain. There’s an amazing group of volunteers in Guinea who call themselves “Les Sacs Bleus” after the blue trash bags that they use to collect the garbage, an incredible self-spontaneous combustion effort to be responsible.

In the Asia Pacific, half a dozen nations have come together with U.S. support to protect the Coral Triangle, a part of the ocean that has been called the Amazon of the seas because of its incredible biodiversity. The Coral Triangle Initiative has led to improved management of a marine area that’s almost the size of one of our states, North Dakota, and it has inspired more than 90 policies, regulations, laws, and agreements to protect the local coastal and marine resources. Here in the United States, we have taken very significant strides to end overfishing in U.S. fisheries. We’ve rebuilt a record number of fish stocks back from depleted levels, and at the same time promoted and increased the economic viability of our fisheries, trying hard to actually give meaning to the word “sustainable fisheries.”

These are just a few examples of a great deal of work that you’re all familiar with, that many of you have created that is taking place around the world. But so far, all of these efforts have only been applied on a relatively small scale and only applied in one region or another. If we want to honor – if we are going to be able to honor our shared responsibility to protect the ocean, the ad hoc approach we have today with each nation and community pursuing its own independent policy simply will not suffice. That is not how the ocean works. We’re not going to meet this challenge unless the community of nations comes together around a single, comprehensive, global ocean strategy. That is the only way that we can clean up our ocean today and make sure that it remains what it needs to be for generations to come. That is what this conference is all about.

Over the past few years, even over the past few months, there have been an encouraging number of reports, summits, meetings, even conventions convened to examine the various threats of our ocean and – are facing and potential ways to address those threats. And many of you here have been part of those meetings. I hope you have found them as valuable as we have. They’ve been instructive and they’re critical, but now is the time for us to build on this groundwork of these past years. Now is the time to build on the knowledge-base that we have created through these meetings, and that is why we have invited you here now, not just to have an important conversation, but to reach important conclusions, to try to put together a plan of action.

I want us to walk away from this conference with more than ideas. I want us to walk away from here with a plan, a plan that puts an end to overfishing through new rules based on the best available science. And may I add one of the things that Ted Stevens – Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska who teamed up with me on the Commerce Committee in the Senate – one of the things we always were fighting was getting more, better science so that we could convince fishermen and convince countries, governments of the imperative of making decisions.

Too often we hear, “Well, we don’t really see that,” or, “We don’t really feel that,” or I’d hear from captains of the boats, “When I go out and fish, I see plenty of stocks out there. There’s no reason to be restricted.” We need science, and globally we could put our heads together and our governments together and come up with both the budget and the capacity to be able to do what we need to be able to help convince people of the urgency of this.

We need a plan that requires fisheries to use gear and techniques that dramatically reduce the amount of fish and other species that are caught by accident and discarded; a plan that ends subsidies to fisheries, which only serves to promote overfishing; a plan that makes it near impossible for illegally-caught fish to actually come to the market anywhere, whether you’re in Boston or Beijing or Barcelona or Brasilia or any other city that doesn’t begin with a B. (Laughter.) Let’s develop a plan that protects more marine habitats, and we will have an announcement regarding that. I believe President Obama will make such an announcement.

Today, less than 2 percent of our ocean is considered a marine protected area, where there are some restrictions on human activity in order to prevent contaminating the ecosystem, less than 2 percent of the entire ocean. There isn’t anybody here who doesn’t believe we can’t do better than that. So let’s start by finding a way to perhaps bring that number up to 10 percent or more as soon as possible.

And let’s develop a plan that does more to reduce the flow of plastic and other debris from entering into the ocean. Everybody’s seen that massive array of garbage in the Pacific and elsewhere. We need a plan that helps cut down the nutrient pollution, that runs off of land and is miles from the shore, and that contributes to the dead zones that I mentioned earlier. I learned about that back when I was running for president out in Iowa and Minnesota and the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and you learn about the flow of these nutrients that go down the Mississippi out into the gulf, and we have a great, big dead zone as a result.

We need to develop a plan that gives us a better understanding of the acidification effect that carbon pollution is having on our ocean, that we know that in the Antarctic, for instance, there was a regurgitation of carbon dioxide. Have we reached a saturation point? I don’t know. But I know that it’s a question that is critical to our capacity to deal with climate change and to maintain the oceans. We ought to be able to know where it’s happening, how quickly it’s happening so we can find the best way to slow it down. And we need to push harder, all of us, for a UN agreement to fight carbon pollution in the first place because the science proves that’s the only way we’ll have a chance of reducing the impact of climate change, which is one of the greatest threats facing not just our ocean, but our entire planet.

Finally we need to develop a plan that not only lays out the policies we need to protect our ocean, but that also considers how we are going to enforce those policies on a global scale. Because without enforcement, any plan we create will only take us so far. I think it was back in the ’90s, if I recall correctly, that Ted Stevens and I joined forces to take driftnet fishing to the United States. And we had become aware of literally tens of thousands of miles of monofilament netting that was dragged behind a boat that would literally strip-mine the ocean with vast proportions of the catch thrown away and clearly not sustainable.

So Senator Stevens and I managed to go to the UN. Ultimately it was banned by the UN. But guess what? There are still some rogue vessels using driftnets to strip-mine the ocean because they get more money, it’s faster, and there’s nobody out there to enforce out – no one out there to enforce it.

So we need to change this. That’s our charge here, all of us. Over the next two days, let’s put our heads together and work on a plan for how we can preserve fish stocks, manage coastlines, and protect ecosystems, a way for us to try to preserve fisheries, a way for us to come to a common understanding of our common interests and find a consensus that we could take to the UN – take this plan to the UN, take it to other international organizations. All of us begin talking the same language off the same page about the same objective, and if we make this a plan that all countries must follow by helping all of them to understand that no country can afford not to, whether you’re on the ocean or not on the ocean.

I know all of this sounds pretty ambitious. It’s meant to be. I know that some of you are probably thinking, “Well, what did I get myself into here?” But look around the room. Every one of you is here for a reason. We have government leaders from around the world at the highest levels, including three heads of state. We have experts from international organizations, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, others. We have private sector leaders who are committed to our oceans’ future, people like Chris Lischewski from Bumble Bee Foods. The best ocean scientists in the world are here. All of us can come together and each can help the other to ensure that every solution that we discuss is directly tied to the best science available.

Ask yourself: If this group can’t create a serious plan to protect the ocean for future generations, then who can and who will? We cannot afford to put this global challenge on hold for another day. It’s our ocean. It’s our responsibility. So I hope that over these next two days, we will maximize the time we are here. I am really delighted that you all came to be part of this. And I hope this will be a new beginning, a new effort to unify and to create a concerted pressure which is necessary to make a difference.

It’s now my pleasure to introduce one final speaker before we open the program up, and there’s going to be a great deal of information coming at you in short order. But President Anote Tong of Kiribati is one of the loudest voices, one of the clearest voices in the world in the call for global action to address climate change. And there’s a simple reason why he has a special interest. It is because climate change is already posing an existential threat to his country. But he’s also one of the world’s greatest advocates for the protection of the ocean well beyond the interests of his own country. Under his leadership, Kiribati has established one of the largest marine-protected areas in the world in the Phoenix Islands in the Pacific. It’s an honor to have him here to share his thoughts with us this morning.

Ladies and gentlemen, President Anote Tong. (Applause.)