Live At State With Under Secretary Novelli on Our Ocean Conference

Catherine A. Novelli
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 
Washington, DC
September 13, 2016

Audio version also available.

MODERATOR: Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive online video platform for engaging with international media. I’m delighted to welcome those of you joining us from around the world today.

We have journalists from more than a dozen countries participating. You’ll be hearing from Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli about the Our Ocean conference, which will take place here at the State Department later this week.

Before I turn it over to our guest, I’d like to make a couple housekeeping notes. You can start submitting your questions now in the field underneath the video window by typing in your question and clicking “Ask Question.” You may also submit your questions by emailing them to Again, you can email your questions to We’ll try to get to as many questions as possible as we can today. Please note, though, we can only accept questions in English. And we encourage you to continue discussing today’s topic after the program on Twitter using the handles @StateDept, @StateDeptOES, and @CathyNovelli You can also use the hashtag #OurOcean, #ActOnClimate, and #1KOceanActions.

And with that, let’s get started. Welcome to the set, Under Secretary Catherine Novelli, and thank you for joining us today. I understand you have a few comments to start us off with.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Great, thanks so much. I am so happy that you’re here joining me today.

As reporters, you have the opportunity to help inform people about some of the world’s most pressing issues, and threats to the ocean is one of them. I would like you to take away a few things from today’s briefing. First, the ocean is threatened. Second, if we take action now, we can protect the ocean. And third, the third Our Ocean conference, which kicks off Thursday, will be a place where just such actions will be taken. It’s hard to imagine that something as vast as the ocean, which covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, could be so threatened. But it is. And we need to take action because, at the most basic level, life on Earth depends on the ocean.

Here are some statistics that tell you why we should make every effort to protect the ocean. More than half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. It regulates our weather. Fish from the ocean provide more than 3 billion people with their primary source of protein, but the ocean that provides so many resources is under significant threat. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s fish docks are overfished. The ocean has absorbed 30 percent of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This has changed the chemical balance of the water. The ocean is 26 percent more acidic today than it was in pre-industrial times, and that means it is destroying coral reefs and shellfish. Plastic waste is choking the ocean. There’s enough plastic in the ocean today to line up 5 grocery bags full of plastic trash on every foot of clothesline in the world. And the number is increasing every year. Experts tell us that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

The impact these threats pose to the world is why the State Department is taking such an active role in addressing ocean issues. From the start, the Our Ocean conference has been about bold new actions and real, concrete solutions. At the first two Our Ocean conferences, participants pledged over $4 billion to conservation activities and committed to safeguard nearly 6 million square kilometers of the ocean in marine protected areas. That’s about the size of the continent of Australia.

As the conference has matured, so has its attention at high levels of government. This year, we expect to host over 450 leaders, including more than 60 foreign and environment ministers, several heads of state, and many scientists, philanthropists, heads of civil society organizations, and private sector executives. There will be representatives from over 90 countries and we expect over 100 new initiatives and commitments over the course of the two-day conference. This year’s conference will address 5 major themes: sustainable fisheries, marine protected areas, marine pollution, clime-related impacts of the ocean, and the blue economy.

The Our Ocean conference has generated global momentum to address these issues, but everyone has a responsibility to take care of our ocean. You don’t have to be a president or a secretary of state, a millionaire or a celebrity to do something to help protect our ocean. Every individual can make a difference. Each plastic bag that doesn’t end up in the ocean counts. Every sustainable seafood choice you make in the restaurant or the grocery store counts. Everyone can get involved in a local beach or river cleanup and work to make our ocean cleaner, healthier, and more beautiful.

Thank you, and with that, I will be happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for joining us again, and I listened with rapt attention as you delivered your beginning comments. The issue of environment and oceans has been a signature issue of this Administration, both the President’s agenda and the Secretary of State’s agenda. So your work there has been incredible.

And the third annual Our Ocean conference kicks off in a couple of days. It’s going to bring hundreds, maybe thousands of people here to Washington, D.C., and hundreds certainly at the State Department. They’re already decking out the hallways, the front of the building, to make it really look like a summit. And so can you – as those people arrive and it kicks off, we’re gathering them all here. You talked about your five priorities, your five topic areas. What do you hope to achieve in the next couple of days as all these folks come here to Washington?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, in each of those topic areas we have a chance to really move the envelope. So for example, in the – looking at the fisheries and sustainable fisheries, we expect a couple of things.

One, Secretary Kerry announced an initiative called the Safe Ocean Network at the last Our Ocean conference, and now we’re in a position where we are going to launch 40 different pilot projects around the world to marry technology and conventional means to actually combat illegal fishing. We have an agreement, an international treaty called the Port State Measures Agreement by which countries say they will refuse to allow illegally caught fish to enter their countries, they will refuse to allow boats that are illegally fishing to dock at their ports. And when we started this process of the Our Ocean conference just in 2014, we had 10 countries signed up. Now we have 68 countries signed up. So we are very thrilled that we’ve been able to push the envelope on that.

On marine protected areas, the importance of these is that they allow the fish, the corals, all the sea life, to regenerate. They’re like national parks in the ocean. And in the last two Our Ocean conferences we’ve created marine protected areas with the help of countries around the world that are, as I said, the size of the continent of Australia. We’re expecting announcements of many more significant marine protected areas. President Obama just announced the largest marine protected area off the coast of Hawaii just a week ago, and we’re expecting many other countries to follow suit.

With regard to pollution of the ocean, we have many pilot projects going on there, both on trying to keep plastics from going into the ocean, some very creative things that are talking about recycling and using plastic to produce energy. And so we have some pilot projects with respect to that.

We’re also going to talk about what happens when you overuse fertilizer and it runs into rivers and then into the ocean, and how one can have better use of that so that there are not dead zones in the ocean.

And then with respect to the blue economy, one of the things that’s very important there is that we all recognize that the ocean is for – is certainly a resource for economic activity. Fishing is an economic activity. It can also be a recreational activity. And so we need to think about how we can marry that economic activity done in a sustainable way with our conservation goals so they are mutually reinforcing. And so that’s another thing that we’re going to talk about.

MODERATOR: One thing that you’ve mentioned over and over in your answer a couple of times now is – and it’s, in fact, in your title – is economy. Economy, energy, and environment – these three things are married together. And so I was hoping for – you could talk for a moment about the supposition that I think many people have that progress in the environmental track means it comes at an expense of the economy track.


MODERATOR: So is that true? And if it’s not, what – how do you believe it’s not true that the environment, progress on environment, comes at the expense of economy?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, so a lot of conventional wisdom has said that, and in fact, I really do not believe that’s true. I think that if you even look at the question of sustainable energy use, some of which happens in the ocean, there’s incredible things going on with wind in the high seas. People are looking at wave energy to generate energy in the ocean. And what’s wonderful about technology and science is that we have learned a lot as we have gone along, and so we really have a chance to apply what we’ve learned so that we can be extremely robust in our economic activities, take nothing away from them, and also protect the environment. So it’s not an either/or. It’s an and.

MODERATOR: That’s fascinating. And I think what you’re saying, what I hear, is that progress in the environment can, in fact, be a boon to an economy.


MODERATOR: And the development of indigenous scientific technology – science and technology, these things both support progress in the environmental track.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Absolutely. They are completely mutually reinforcing. And if you think about, for example, marine protected areas, there’s a number of island states who have decided to completely protect their territorial water from any fishing. And they’re doing that not just because of altruistic motives, but because they want to make themselves a tourist destination, and they’ve decided that a live shark – and they’ve done economic studies actually to show that a live shark is worth way more than a dead one in terms of tourism dollars that are generated from people who want to come and see these things.

MODERATOR: As a diver myself, absolutely true. I dove in marine protected areas off the coast of Kenya and in the – beautiful, beautiful wildlife. And another piece of the economy is folks who consume the fish that the fishermen bring out, and of course, it’s a vital part of the economy, but perhaps one where you can realize some benefit from responsible fishing. And folks also have an interest in knowing where their fish come from. And so can you talk for a moment about the Port State Measures Agreement?


MODERATOR: What that is and how that affects people worldwide.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Sure. So the Port State Measures Agreement is really innovative. Folks looked at the ocean and said, wow, the ocean is really big, which is something I think everybody understands, and how is it possible to police the whole ocean? And I think the conclusion was that it is not possible to police every single fishing boat in the ocean. It’s too vast.

So the question was: What can we do that can be a very efficient deterrent to illegal fishing? And the answer to that question by people around the world was we need to choke off the ability to sell your illegally caught fish. And the way to do that is to do it at the port, because everybody who is fishing has to land their fish on land so that folks can – the majority of folks can consume that fish.

So if you have a really robust checkpoint at your port such that you are able to screen the fish and the boats that are coming in – and again, technology can really help with this – you can deny admittance of illegally caught fish. And if we can be very efficient about it and the more countries who join this, it becomes much more difficult to actually make a living catching fish illegally. And so hopefully, that’s going to deter people from illegal fishing.

MODERATOR: I’d like to switch tracks a little bit and put a statistic out there that I know you’re familiar with, and it’s 1.8 billion. And that’s the number of people on Earth estimated right now between the age of 10 and 24. The issue of environment, I think, is a youth issue. Right? Who are we turning the Earth over to? It’s the youth. And so 1.8 billion; there’s this bubble of youth coming up, and we have to ask ourselves the question: What are we doing to get youth involved in this issue that directly impacts their future and their children’s future?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Yeah. And I’m glad you asked that, because when we were thinking about this third Our Ocean conference, one of the themes that we really wanted to press ahead with was how do we start passing all of this momentum on to the next generation. And so we actually are co-sponsoring with Georgetown University a youth ocean summit that’s going to be going on in parallel with the Our Ocean 2016 meeting here. And there’s going to be 150 college students from around the world coming to Georgetown. They had to actually propose solutions to some of the problems facing the ocean in order to get accepted. And they’re going to be sitting in groups and actually trying to innovate solutions to some of the problems that I’ve been mentioning here today. So we’re very excited about that.

We’ve also partnered with the Discovery Channel to actually do an ocean module that can be used in teaching in middle school and high school about the oceans so that we can really get an educated population globally on these ocean issues.

MODERATOR: I know you have to go, but I wanted to get in one last question before we go. And as we head into the Administration’s final UN General Assembly and as we’ve pointed out, the President and the Secretary are very vested in this oceans issue. Will the momentum continue going into the next administration?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: The momentum is going to continue globally, and we’re really excited. The EU has already said that it’s going to host the next Our Ocean conference next year, in 2017, and we have some other countries lined up to host beyond the EU, and they’re going to make those announcements at the conference. And so we’re really excited that the momentum on this will continue on a global basis.

MODERATOR: Thank you, and thank you very much for attending and joining us today. The oceans issue is one that we can’t get away from and it’s so important, and so I’m glad that you – you’re focusing so much energy on it. Do you have any final comments for us before we go? How can people continue interacting on this issue?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, they can actually watch the livestream of the conference at, and they can follow me on Twitter, which is Cathy with a “C,” Cathy Novelli. It’s @CathyNovelli. So we’re really very excited about everything that’s happening and we hope folks will follow us.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for joining us today, Under Secretary Novelli. And I hope folks will join you @CathyNovelli, Cathy with a “C,” on Twitter. And you can continue to engage with us at the State Department on this issue using our Twitter handle, @StateDept, and also @StateDeptOES, Oceans, Environment, and Science. And also use our hashtags: #OurOcean, #ActOnClimate, #1KOceanActions.

Stay tuned and visit the website for the conference that’s happening here at the State Department. They’re already setting up in the hallways for it. That’s happening. That website is,

And thank you very much for joining us for another LiveAtState. It was a pleasure to see you again. I hope you’ll join us again soon, Under Secretary Novelli. Thank you very much for joining us.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Thank you. Thank you.