Our Fate Tied to the Ocean's Fate

Catherine A. Novelli
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 
The Huffington Post
Washington, DC
September 21, 2015

World leaders and the international community are gathering soon at the United Nations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide the UN and member states for the next 15 years. A critical component of achieving all the goals will be conservation and sustainable use of the world's ocean, seas, and marine resources -- Goal 14. This is good news. A healthy ocean is essential to ending poverty, drives prosperity, and ensures the health of our planet for generations to come.

The ocean makes this planet habitable for human life. It generates half the oxygen we breathe and regulates our climate. Our fate is tied to the ocean's fate. We cannot talk about sustainability without it. Yet, those who depend on the ocean for their livelihood are telling us about the changes they are witnessing. Many of the world's fish stocks are depleted and overfished. Runoff and debris are choking our waters and harming marine life. Carbon emissions are making the ocean more acidic, threatening ancient ecosystems, like coral reefs.

In June 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry brought global leaders and international experts together at the first Our Ocean conference in Washington, D.C. The conference drew attention to the dire state of the ocean, while also highlighting the ocean's regenerative nature and collective actions we can take to make our ocean healthy again for future generations. Addressing threats to the ocean will require innovation, research, and new technological approaches -- and these solutions are in sight. But it will also require significant and sustained action by all of us.

We are now preparing for U.S. participation in the next Our Ocean conference, to be hosted next month by Chile. In just 16 months since the last Our Ocean conference, we have already witnessed significant progress and commitments turned into real actions by the United States and partners around the world.

President Obama's expansion of the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument made it the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world. This expanse of the Pacific is particularly rich in marine life, including an unusual concentration of large predators, like sharks, five species of protected sea turtles, 22 species of protected marine mammals, and several million seabirds. With this bold step, the President protected a chain of underwater seamounts that are hotspots of biodiversity and created an area where marine life can thrive, fish stocks can regenerate, and marine ecosystems can regain balance so that they can thrive and continue to provide for our needs. And President Obama is not alone in his actions. With a global target of protecting 10 percent of the world's coastal and marine areas by 2020, other nations such as Gabon, the United Kingdom, Palau, and the Bahamas also have recently committed to establishing new MPAs.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is particularly problematic for sustainable development, threatening food security and stability in many places. Developing countries are most at risk. For instance, total catches in West Africa are estimated to be 40 percent higher than reported catches. Many crews on IUU fishing vessels are from underdeveloped parts of the world and are often subject to unsafe conditions. Experts estimate that global losses from IUU fishing are more than $10 billion annually.

Working closely with other governments and NGOs, we are exploring new technologies to improve surveillance and enforcement of fishing activities in the ocean and fishing bans in MPAs. We are developing a system to keep illegally caught seafood out of the United States by tracking it throughout the supply chain -- from harvest to entry into the country. And we are urging all countries to join the Port State Measures Agreement, a new international treaty that will block illegally caught seafood from entering the stream of commerce around the world. These actions will help level the playing field for fishers and countries who follow the rules and work hard to sustainably manage ocean resources.

Overfishing isn't the only threat to marine life. Experts estimate that by 2025 there could be one ton of plastic in the ocean for every three tons of fish. Plastic created for a single, short-term use can live on for centuries as trash. When not managed properly, plastic waste finds its way into the ocean, where it entangles sea creatures, damages coral reefs, and breaks down into small, non-biodegradable pieces that are eaten by fish and marine mammals.

We are rolling up our sleeves, together with businesses, entrepreneurs, scientists, NGOs, and other governments, to solve our plastic-waste problem. We need to reduce plastic waste, look for alternative packaging, and improve waste collection and management on an urgent basis, including by encouraging and incentivizing innovation.

There are real business opportunities in waste-to-energy projects and recycling innovations. The United States is helping to support an experimental project in the Philippines that turns plastic waste into clean energy. A new generation of eco-entrepreneurs is recycling discarded fishing nets into skateboards and jeans. Forward-thinking companies are researching how to reduce plastic packaging in the near term and in the long term create a "circular economy" where all parts of a product and its packaging are reused. This is true sustainability.

Perhaps the most challenging threat to our ocean is acidification. The same carbon emissions that cause climate change make the ocean more acidic. This has the potential to undermine dramatically the growth and survival of numerous marine organisms, including oysters, clams, and corals. Achieving an ambitious, durable international climate-change agreement that all countries can join in Paris this December should be front and center on all our agendas. The U.S.'s intention to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels in 2025 will contribute substantively to international efforts to combat climate change, and we look for similarly ambitious contributions from other major emitters.

Sustainable development is a great challenge for us all. During this year's UN General Assembly, the world is watching. The energy we see at this moment to address the challenges of climate, growth, and sustainable development needs to be carried forward, and heightened attention to the ocean is crucial.