World Conservation Congress Briefing With Catherine Novelli, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment

September 1, 2016

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Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the World Conservation Congress call. At this time lines are in a listen-only mode and later we will conduct a question and answer session with instructions being given at that time. [Operator instructions]. And as a reminder, today’s call is being recorded.

I would now like to turn the conference over to our host from the Office of International Media Engagement, Cynthia Gire. Please go ahead.

Cynthia: Thank you, and greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our journalists who have dialed in from throughout the Asia Pacific. Today we are joined by Catherine Novelli, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy & the Environment at the U.S. Department of State. She is speaking to you today from Honolulu, Hawaii. This call is on the record and questions should directly relate to today’s topic, conservation. In addition, the entire contents of the call are embargoed until the conclusion of the call. We will begin with opening remarks and then open it up to your questions.

And with that, I will turn it over to Under Secretary Novelli.

Catherine: Thank you so much and thanks to you, members of the press, for joining me here today. I am here in Honolulu to attend and speak at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress. And this meeting happens once every four years and it is used to set the agenda for conservation for the next four years. There are about 8,000 people from all over the world who attend this conference, government officials, NGOs, people from the private sector. And I would say I think that’s really important, because we know that our world is under threat and under pressure and we aren’t going to be able to solve these problems that are facing us unless all of us work together. So this really does take an approach of governments, the private sector, the NGO community, scientists, all of us working together.

What we’re going to be doing here in Hawaii is leading discussions about combating wildlife trafficking. We’re going to be pushing for a global end to the trade in ivory, and we’re going to be building support for protecting threatened species like pangolins. And we’re also going to talk more broadly about the case for the broader public to protect the biodiversity of our planet, including with regard to the ecosystem of the ocean that’s so vital to all of us. The ocean actually produces more than half of the oxygen that we breathe, and so it is very important for all of us that the ocean be resilient.

And what’s really interesting about this point in time is that this World Conservation Congress is happening right now, and quickly, within a week and a half, we’re going to follow this conference with the 2016 Our Ocean conference that’s going to take place in Washington. Then immediately after that’s finished, the UN General Assembly in New York will occur. And finally, the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade & Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which is the long name for CITES, and that’s going to take place in South Africa at the end of the September. So September is a chock-a-block month full of pushing forward on major conservation issues.

I thought I could just take a minute or two to tell you about some of these other things that are going to be happening. So with respect to the conference on Our Ocean that is going to be hosted by Secretary of State Kerry in Washington DC on September 15th and 16th, we’re are going to be looking at how do we deal with the threats to the ocean, which are over-fishing, pollution of the ocean, and ocean acidification due to climate. And we’re also going to be looking at, how do we concur these things at the same as we are ensuring that the resources of the ocean are able to be utilized in a way that is economically sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.

And so the Our Ocean conference is not just a talking conference. It’s actually a doing conference. It is a place where countries, scientists, NGOs, and the private sector come together. They make very tangible commitments and we present solutions to some of these problems that are plaguing the ocean now, with that hope that that’s going to spread out more globally.

So just to give you a couple of concrete examples with regard to pollution of the ocean, right now there is so much plastic in the ocean that if you took all the plastic that’s in the ocean today and lined it along the coast of the world, every coastline that touches the ocean, you would have plastic that was five garbage bags deep. That’s what’s in the ocean today. What is estimated is that by 2050, if we keep going at the rate we’re going, there’s going to be more plastic than fish in the ocean. So we are looking for ways to look at recycling, turning plastic into energy, and into how our packaging is redesigned so that less plastic is used. So we’re looking at very practical things with regard to that.

With regard to conserving fish, one of the things that is being talked about here at the WCC conference that we are also going to carry forward at the Ocean conference, are what are known as marine protected areas. These are essentially areas that are kind of like national parks of the ocean where you protect against fishing. And the reason why this is important is because it allows fish stock to recover, and it protects the biodiversity in that area. And the goal of what should be protected is about 10% of the entire ocean.

The U.S. right now has over 30% of our waters protected as marine protected areas, and President Obama, in fact, just announced the expansion of a large marine protected area here in Hawaii called the Papahānaumokuākea. So that marine protected area was expanded just a few days ago. But in terms of what the rest of the world is, it’s less than 3% of the rest of the world that has their waters protected, so we’re trying to really move that forward.

The other thing that we’re trying to do is to deal with illegal fishing. This goes to the question of not just fishing in marine protected areas where you’re not supposed to do it, but also fish stocks around the world are internationally managed. And there’s a lot of illegal fishing going on where people are essentially taking more fish than they’re supposed to in areas where they’re not supposed to be. And we know that we’ve got over 3.1 billion people depending on fisheries and aqua-culture for a significant amount of their daily protein, and we need to make sure that this protein source is going to be available for their children and their grandchildren and for all of us.

Secretary Kerry announced a special program called The Safe Ocean Network. And the idea of this is that we would combine technology as well as traditional means, work with countries around the world on pilot projects to try to identify where illegal fishing is taking place, and then actually interdict it and prosecute those who are illegally fishing. And we have many pilot projects that we’re going to be announcing at the Our Ocean conference.

The other big issue that we are tackling here at the World Conservation Congress is wildlife trafficking. And as I said, we’re talking about that here and then we’re going to be pushing that forward in the CITES meeting in Johannesburg at the end of September. And there we really feel that it is very important that other countries in the world follow the lead that the United States and China established between President Xi and President Obama, where we declared that we are ending the commercial sale of ivory. And in fact, the United States implemented the near total ban on the domestic commercial trade of elephant ivory just in June of this year, and China has said that it’s going to put out its plan for getting to zero by the end of this year.

The elephant population has been declining dramatically, and we face a situation where we will not have elephants in the wild anymore if we continue along with path. So we are urging within CITES the parties to this convention CITES to actually implement their own domestic bans on trade in African elephant ivory.

In addition to that, we are looking at innovative ways that we can deal with the question of wildlife trafficking. One of the things that we’re doing is we are holding a zoo hack-a-thon. And what a zoo hack-a-thon is, is it’s a gathering all over the world, actually, of computer experts who are designing apps and computer programs that can solve some of the problems that are plaguing us.

So for example, one of the challenges that the hackers will be given is how to create an app that would help people who are purchasing something that, they don’t know if it’s ivory or if it’s bone or plastic or what it is, and to be able to identify what the thing is that they’re purchasing, so that they would know not to buy ivory. There are other kinds of programs, and the challenges are actually being designed by zoos around the world. They are presenting the things that are actually challenging them and seeing if technology can help find a solution.

So we’re very excited about the zoo hack-a-thon. Each one of the zoos will announce its own winners, and then we will be publicizing them.. And we intend to build this out across the whole world. We’re starting in the US, UK, and Australia, but we’re going to be building this out throughout the whole world over the next many months.

So we’ve got a lot going on, and I’d be glad to take your questions. That’s just a brief overview of what’s going on in the month of September, and I’d be glad to take any questions that you have.

Moderator: Thank you. We will now begin with the question and answer portion of today’s event. [Operator instructions]. We’ll just give it a minute to get the reporters to queue up. [Operator instructions]. Our first question is from Rita Zang of the China Review News Agency. Please go ahead.

Rita: Good evening, everyone. My question is that we know that President Obama is racing to cement his legacy on climate change before his presidency ends. And I want to ask if there’s any of significant progress about the climate change that will be shared during the meeting at the G20. Thank you.

Catherine: So one of the things that we have been trying to do with regard to climate, as you I’m sure know, there was an historic agreement that was agreed to in Paris. And the agreement has countries making individually determined reduction amounts in the amount of carbon that they will be putting out into the atmosphere. And in order to enter it into force a certain number of countries have to actually ratify the agreement.

So one of the things that we will be discussing with China, as a well as the other G20 countries, is to urge them to ratify that agreement as soon as possible. We have said that we intend to ratify it before the end of the year, and President Xi has said the same thing about China. And we’re hoping that with the U.S. and China working together, that we’ll be able to get many more of the G20 to commit to move forward on ratification.

Moderator Thank you. Our next call comes from Cambodia. That’s [indiscernible] News. Please go ahead.

M: Hello?

Catherine: Yes.

M: Okay. Good morning, Secretary Catherine. I have one question because it’s actually, we can link between the two marine protection and the so-called climate challenges and also policy. Some countries are trying to enhance their capacity in order to protect the marine, something like that. But the problem is that it has faced a lot of challenges. So what is United States is doing in order to help them cope with this challenge, especially policy and so on and so forth? Thank you.

Catherine: I’m sorry, I wasn’t quite sure. I think you were breaking up a little bit. You said there are challenges, but I didn’t know what the challenge was. Could you repeat that part?

M: Okay, okay. So we can link between marine protection and policy and the economic challenges. So what the United States is doing in order to help the poor and developing countries to cope with these challenges in order to—yes, yes, yes, yes.

Catherine: Okay, I understand. So I think what’s interesting here is that there are several threads of economics that run through a marine protected area. A marine protected area says that this is going to be an area where fishing is not going to occur. But you know that the ocean is such that there aren’t fences up in the ocean, so fish swim around. And the idea is there would be an area that’s safe for the fish to rejuvenate, and that does a couple things.

A number of island countries have actually made their entire territorial waters marine protected areas, and the reason is because they’re trying to promote tourism. So a lot of people want to come and see coral and fish, and so they have decided that their economics sweet spot is really in the tourism area. So not having fishing makes that a much better place that tourists want to come to.

With regard to those who are relying upon fish for protein or for food, there’s a slightly different question here, and that is that fishing is a business. It’s not just only subsistence. And it’s a similar thing to the forest. If you fish all the fish, then there aren’t going to be any more to eat over time. And so the marine protected areas play a very important role in helping those fish rejuvenate so they can swim out of the marine protected area and actually then be caught in the places that are not protected and where fishing is allowed. So there actually are economic components on both of those things.

The third place where there’s an economic component is a new treaty that is looking at how to stop illegally caught fish from actually entering into the commerce of a country, and that treaty is called the Port State Measures Agreement. When we started working on this, there were very few countries who had actually ratified it. We now have over 50.

What this agreement says is that you will administer your port so that you will not allow illegally caught fish to actually come in. You won’t allow boats who have been found to be illegally fishing to even dock at your ports, and to really try to create an economic disincentive for illegal fishing.

And one of the things that we’re doing at our Ocean conference in terms of assisting countries is helping technical assistance for developing countries for port administration, so that they would be able to actually implement this agreement and choke off the illegally caught fish. Which is harming the fish, and it’s also harming the economic livelihood of fishers who are legally catching fish. So economics and conservation are hand-in-hand throughout the marine protected areas.

Moderator: Thank you. [Operator instructions]. I know that we don’t have much time left, so I will ask the under secretary if she has any closing comments before we end the call.

Catherine: I’m looking forward to the month of September. I am looking forward to this conference that I’m here to participate in today. And I’m looking forward to really moving forward in protecting our planet and its resources for our generation and for generations to come. And I thank you very much for joining the call.

Cynthia: Thank you. Thank you very much, and thanks to all of our callers for participating in today’s briefing. If you have any questions about the call, please contact me at That concludes today’s call. I’ll turn it back over to the operator.

Moderator: Thank you, and ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude our conference for today. Thank you for your participation and for using AT&T Executive TeleConference Service. You may now disconnect.