Ocean Sustainability: U.S. Perspectives

Kerri-Ann Jones
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
The Economics of the Oceans Conference Hosted by the Government of Sweden
Washington, DC
December 3, 2013

Good Morning. I’m Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

It is a pleasure to be here. I want to thank Ambassador Lyrvall, Ambassador Svensson, and the Government of Sweden for convening this important conference and bringing together many key experts in this field.

I lead the Bureau of the State Department that focuses on U.S. foreign policy related to the oceans. The oceans topic is receiving increased attention in Washington these days. President Obama has placed oceans policy high on his agenda. He signed an Executive order in July 2010 that established a National Ocean Policy that defines the Administration’s position on relevant issues, including Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning, and established the National Ocean Council. All U.S. agencies are now following the Policy’s Implementation Plan that was issued in April of this year.

And I’m sure you aware that oceans are a major interest of Secretary of State John Kerry. The first major policy speech he gave when he arrived as Secretary was on marine protected areas, and soon thereafter he asked my bureau to plan a major oceans-related conference that would bring together key leaders and experts to discuss a series of oceans topics. We had scheduled that conference for October 24-25 here in Washington. All was ready. But we hadn’t taken into account the improbable eventuality of our government shutting down, and indeed the shutdown made it impossible to proceed with the conference. Still, we are undaunted, and we are working hard to reschedule, likely in the late spring of 2014.

General Concerns Regarding the Oceans

We’ve entitled our conference “Oceans under Threat: Charting a Sustainable Future.” I would like to share with you the topics we plan to emphasize at the conference, but first I would like to provide some of the important backdrop that many of you know: the oceans and their resources are critical to the well-being of all of us. But the oceans are in trouble, and it is vital that we all recognize and face together the pressing and growing threats to the health and sustainability of the oceans.

The United States, like many countries, has an intimate connection to the oceans. Our economy and our identity are firmly embedded in our ocean heritage and resources. As recognized in our National Ocean Policy, America’s stewardship of the oceans is intimately linked to our national prosperity, the health and well-being of our people and of our environment, and our foreign policy.

The oceans and their resources are critical to the world community. Oceans cover almost three quarters of our planet. They regulate our climate and our weather. Over one third of the world’s population lives in coastal areas and more than one billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. Many jobs and economies around the world depend on the living marine resources in our oceans.

But the oceans are in trouble. A number of critical fish stocks have declined, some to the point of collapse. In many regions, corals are dying, leaving bare skeletons of reefs that can’t support fish or protect coastlines. Run-off from land and harmful algal blooms have sapped the oxygen from water, creating marine dead zones around the world where fish and other marine life cannot thrive. Our oceans are becoming littered with debris, threatening marine life and in some places concentrating in massive “garbage patches.” The oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, changing the very chemistry of the water and threatening the food webs of the oceans.

Still, there are ways to respond to many of these challenges and I am certain that is what inspires many of you in the work you do every day and to join dialogues like this one. Through partnerships and collaboration among governments, the private sector, research institutions and NGOs, through innovation, and with the political will and the right policies, we can address these challenges.

Examples of on-going efforts include the Port States Measures Agreement. This agreement has been signed by many nations, and once in force will help ensure that illegally harvested fish do not enter the stream of commerce. It will prevent the offloading of fish in ports around the world. Another example is the UN’s initiative for a World Ocean Assessment that will provide a valuable scientific baseline to inform ocean and coastal policy and future management decisions.

A key example, and one of great interest to Secretary Kerry, is the international effort to establish marine protected areas, following on commitments all countries made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development Year as well as at the Rio+20 conference. The United States and New Zealand have co-sponsored a proposal to establish what would be the world’s largest MPA, in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. The Ross Sea is a unique ecosystem deserving of protection, in particular to allow for long-term scientific study. Our proposal is based on sound science and has been supported by Sweden and most other members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

But as many of you know, even after many years of sustained effort, we weren’t able to get the Commission to agree to establish this MPA in October, due to the opposition of a very small number of countries. We see a very positive sign for marine conservation that so many diverse countries, including those that fish in the region, are willing to establish this MPA, but unfortunately we are not there yet. The lack of success is frustrating, but it means we must redouble our efforts. We very much hope to resolve the remaining differences and to make progress on this proposal in the near term.

To address the current state of the oceans, much more needs to be done, and we view conferences like this one and the one we are planning to be important opportunities to draw attention to the threats facing our oceans and to identify ways to address these challenges. We want to showcase best practices in marine conservation and encourage the participants to promote national and international action to improve the state of the oceans.

Key Oceans Themes

In developing the themes for the State Department’s planned oceans conference, we reached out NGOs and industry. We also worked with Members of Congress, where Senator Whitehouse co-chairs the U.S. Senate Oceans Caucus. Through these discussions and reflecting the Secretary’s concerns, we are developing a focus on three broad and important issues, all of connect to themes you will be exploring here today and tomorrow.

First, sustainable fisheries. We know that the health and sustainability of marine fisheries are deteriorating. A significant percentage of key fish stocks are overfished and/or depleted. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing plagues too many fisheries worldwide. Certain fishing practices also cause damage to the ocean itself, including excessive bycatch and destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and habitats. The international community has been striving to grapple with these challenges, with mixed results so far.

On a more positive note, new technologies and partnerships among governments, industries and consumers offer prospects for improving the state of ocean ecosystems and key fisheries. We hope to showcase the best available science relating to marine fisheries and to highlight some ways to move toward a more sustainable future.

Second, we wish to focus on marine pollution. The global marine environment faces threats of pollution from a variety of land, sea, and air-based sources. It is estimated that 80 percent of global marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Marine debris, which includes plastics, is one type of marine pollution, and is a global problem that threatens wildlife and presents health and safety concerns for humans. More than 250 different animal species – including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales, and fish – have been documented as having ingested marine debris or suffered from entanglement in marine debris.

Nutrient pollution, caused by diverse sources including agriculture, sewage and wastewater runoff, is a critical problem because it overfertilizes marine environments with high concentrations of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous, which can produce “dead zones.” It is estimated that there are nearly 500 dead zones in the world’s oceans in which marine life cannot be sustained.

We intend to draw attention to these serious marine pollution issues while also highlighting best practices and innovative initiatives to combat this global concern.

Our third theme will be ocean acidification, one of the most pressing issues facing the world’s marine environments, occurs as oceans absorb increasingly greater levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Ocean acidity has increased over 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Studies have shown that a more acidic environment has a dramatic effect on some calcifying species, including oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton. When these organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.

Our Oceans Conference will offer an overview of the status of ocean acidification, highlight affected industries such as shellfish farming, and address new and emerging tools for monitoring this debilitating trend affecting many critical regions of our oceans. This conference represents an important opportunity for international stakeholders to consider further research and cooperative actions to understand and address the pressing acidification issue facing the world’s oceans.

It is only through innovation and collaboration that all stakeholders can address these challenges. With that in mind, I should also mention that we are exploring areas for public-private partnerships as possible ways forward related to some of these themes.

In sum, as you well know, there is a lot going on in the area of ocean policy. During your conference today and tomorrow, you will discuss many key aspects. It is a topic of great urgency, and very much worth the effort all of you are putting in to it. I wish you well in your discussions.