Background Briefing on the Our Ocean Conference

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
En Route to Valparaiso, Chile
October 4, 2015

MODERATOR: (In progress) opening comments that you would --


MODERATOR: And then we’ll take some questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So we are really excited that Chile picked up the baton after the first Our Ocean Conference that Secretary Kerry hosted last summer. And we’ve been working with them very closely, and at our conference – at the – our Our Ocean Conference – we focused on three main themes, and that was overfishing, pollution of the ocean, and ocean acidification, and Chile is going to continue those three main themes.

And we focused on not just having a talk shop but having a conference where actual things were announced and creating momentum for more to be announced. At our conference, we had pledges of $1.8 billion – 800 million for the ocean, 1 billion for climate. Climate is relevant to the ocean because the ocean is absorbing 30 percent of the carbon that is put out in the air, and that is causing huge problems with respect to coral and other shellfish, as well as just changing the dynamic of what’s going on in the ocean. We also were very successful in catalyzing the creation of marine protected areas, and so we ended up with commitments for 4 million square kilometers of marine protected areas, which is greater than the size of the continent of Europe. And we delivered ours when President Obama designated the largest marine protected area in the world in the Pacific in September of last year.

But since that time, a number of other countries have moved forward with their marine protected areas, so we’d like to believe that this isn’t just about going from conference to conference, but it’s actually a continuous momentum that occurs between conferences as well as at conferences. And so we’ve seen New Zealand just designate a very large, 640,000-square-kilometer marine protected area – 15 percent of its own EEZ – just at the UNGA. The UK has announced the Pitcairn Islands, and it’s practically finished doing what it needs to do on its processes; Kiribati and Palau; Gabon has announced that it’s going to do 10 different marine protected areas.

So we really feel like we made a lot of progress there; feel like we made a lot of progress with respect to pollution of the ocean, where 80 percent of the pollution in the ocean comes from land, so the short-term issue there is how do we keep all of that plastic in particular from going from the land into the ocean, and that means better recycling. So there, we were very successful in getting the G7 to announce a major initiative to deal with recycling and getting rid of plastic from going into the ocean in the G7 summit, as well as the APEC ministerial. And we have been working in partnership with several countries to start doing some pathbreaking waste-to-energy kind of recycling as well. So we feel like we’ve made progress there as well. And – so at this next meeting, what we’re hoping to achieve is to continue the wave that we started, to see more very concrete things happen, and then to create the momentum for still more to happen when we then host the next conference.

And the other thing that we’ve done on the illegal fishing side is to – we set up a task force to look at how could we stem illegally caught fish from entering the commerce of the United States, because 90 percent of the seafood that we consume in the United States is imported. And our own fisheries management has done a really good job and our own fishers comply with the rules, and we want to try to create a level playing field for them as well as to have an impact on what was going on more broadly. And so we’ve announced a traceability system for seafood from where it’s caught all the way to when it enters the commerce of the United States, so we’ll be able to know whether this was sustainably caught or not, and then we will not allow anything that doesn’t pass muster in terms of being able to show that paper process from where it was caught to when it enters the commerce of the United States to come in.

The other and last thing I’ll say about that is there is an international treaty called the Port State Measures Agreement that actually catalyzes a lot of this action on illegal fishing and actually requires the countries who sign on to deny access to their ports from boats that have been known to be illegally fishing. And it provides a lot of other tools so that the actions that you take are actually completely on all fours with the international rules, because it’s setting up these new rules. It needs 20 countries to come into force --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Twenty-five, sorry – 25 to come into force. We have now I think 14 --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thirteen, right, and seven more are on the cusp of being able to ratify. We in the U.S. got the advice and consent of our Senate to sign it. A bill to ratify for implementation has passed the House and we’re hoping that it will pass the Senate soon.

So I’ll stop there and take questions.

QUESTION: So are you counting yourself among the 13 – the expectation that the Senate will pass --


QUESTION: So 13 plus United States?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No – yeah, 13 have actually ratified. We have not.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’re just like inches away from being able to ratify. We’ve signed, but then you have to actually ratify by implementing it, so the 13 have actually ratified.

QUESTION: Where do you see the progress in the next day, number one? And number two, is there any link between the oceans conference and what’s – and with the climate talk in Paris?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So in terms of the next day, I think what we’re going to see is – and I don’t want to jump the gun on announcements that are going to be made, but --

QUESTION: We all know it. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: We all know the Chilean announcement.



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So – but we have some things that we’re going to also try to – I mean, we are going to announce new initiatives that are global. And we expect others to announce – other countries to announce more marine protected areas, more work on illegal fishing, working – more work on pollution of the ocean and getting rid of plastics, more work on monitoring of ocean acidification – which is kind of the main effort right now on the ocean acidification, because we don’t really know enough about how much of the acidified water is where, and that has a huge impact on the shellfish, et cetera. And then once you kind of know that, you can figure out what you do besides – and that leads into your question, what’s the link between the COP talks and this.

And the link really is that these things are joined. So as I said, the ocean absorbs 30 percent of the carbon that is put out into the atmosphere, which is degrading the ocean. And so solving the climate issue or ameliorating it is going to also have a huge impact on the ocean. Similarly, and sort of in the reverse way, mangroves and other kinds of things are part of that absorption of the carbon, and so you want to keep the ocean healthy to help out with the problems in the atmosphere. So it’s a real circle in terms of these two pieces really fitting together, and we expect that there’s going to be some events around the COP that are going to be actually dedicated to oceans and recognition of the fact that this is kind of a linked system.


QUESTION: I have a couple.


QUESTION: One, on the making the protected zones, you can only do this in your EEZ, is that – in your exclusive economic zone, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, something you control, right. Yeah.

QUESTION: So in the open seas, as it were, you really can’t do this – there’s no mechanism yet for doing this, correct?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, there’s one place where there’s a mechanism, and that is in Antarctica, where the CCAMLR countries have agreed that they’re going to kind of police that. We have a proposal right now to create a marine protected area – the largest, I believe – in the Ross Sea. And we’re – our fingers are crossed that we can get everybody on board. We saw the – actually the President raise this with President Xi; we spent a lot of time talking to the Government of China about this. We have – this proposal is between us and New Zealand and several other countries who are already signed on, so we’re also hopeful that the Russians will see their way clear, as the chair of CCAMLR this year, to move this forward. We’re not 100 percent sure we’ll get it, but we’re going to continue to work. It’s been in process for 10 years.

QUESTION: That’s interesting. On the traceability system, how do you control against cheating in the – like with a diamond, you can put specific markings, cuts – in things like a fish that may look the same regardless of which --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Putting markings on the fish?

QUESTION: Right. Regardless of which water it was caught in, you can’t tell at some point, so things can get mixed and then you don’t know. How do you police that? How do you control that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, so what we’re thinking of doing and what we’re planning to do is actually taking something from the private sector and how they control their own inventory. And they are – for example, we were at Ford factory in South Africa. They were proudly telling us that they could actually trace how much torque was put on any given bolt of any given car, so if later on something came loose, they would know exactly what day that bolt was put on, how much torque was given to it, et cetera, because there are very sophisticated tracking mechanisms. And so our plan is to use that type of tracking mechanism so that you would have bar codes, you would have a very high-tech ability to track fish all the way through. Is it going to be 100 percent foolproof? It probably won’t be 100 percent foolproof. No system is 100 percent foolproof. But we believe this has the best chance of being as close to foolproof as possible.

And also, we’re trying to make something that’s going to be extremely effective and as least burdensome as possible on the fishers, and a lot of our fishers are already implementing these types of practices for things like tuna. So they’re very used to this kind of traceability.

QUESTION: Is this system to protect the fish, or is – or all the people involved in the fishing? I know there’s been a lot of reports recently out of Thailand, for example, of slave fishermen.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right. So this whole system of tracing the fish is going to tell your exactly where it was caught and by whom, and it’s – this traceability piece for the moment is directed at the conservation of fish research – resources, sorry. But the question of the ill treatment of workers, enslaved men – workers, et cetera is something we care about deeply. We are tracking that through our TIP Report – Trafficking in Persons Report. We are actively engaging with governments to get them to also enforce their own laws more vigorously, as well as to provide technical assistance on how to do that. So at the moment, the bar codes are related to only the fish, but we’re just starting this system, so we’re not sure how much it will expand.

QUESTION: How have you – this has already been implemented, this traceability?


QUESTION: Just starting?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Just starting in some – we’re going to announce the fish that we – what we decided to do is instead of saying every single fish that’s caught is going to go through this, we basically took the – as the beginning the greatest number of fish, so species that represent about 80 percent or more of all fish, and it’s not every single fish. So we’re starting with that and sort of doing almost a – it’s not a test run, but we’re going to implement this with that, and then if we need to tweak it for all the rest of the remaining fish, then we will do that.

QUESTION: Okay. So that includes the big ones we know – tuna, salmon --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’m not sure salmon’s on the list, but it’s tunas, codfish, shrimp, crab meat. And the purpose is – we’re not just – it’s not just illegal fishing from a boat, it’s – but it’s also aquaculture. So, for example, if a – if in a China aquaculture facility they’re making blue crab, they can’t sell it in the United States as Chesapeake blue crab.

QUESTION: As sovage blue crab. (Laughter.)


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, yeah, and there’s a lot of that. Our crab fishermen in Alaska were particularly – we went through a whole public process with this, and they were particularly vocal about the fact that there was a lot of illicit fish coming from Russia being labeled as U.S. And so that’s why we think this is going to be good for everybody.

QUESTION: Sorry, the – so who’s going to implement this traceability?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, anybody who wants to sell fish in the U.S. is going to have to implement it.

QUESTION: And this is --


QUESTION: And that’s going to be by when obligatory?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible) the exact dates --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So the at-risk species that [Senior State Department Official] just noted – those will be implemented by September 2016, and then the – all species that are sold in the U.S., the implementation will be finalized by 2017.

QUESTION: And there’s no issues with trade law on this?



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, because we’re treating everybody the same. So everybody has equal treatment, and so you’re cool with trade law as long as everybody is treated the same. And there’s a clear recognition that there’s a conservation problem with overfishing in the world, so it’s not something we’re just dreaming up.

QUESTION: So even American producers are subject to this?



QUESTION: Is it going to cost me extra to buy fish?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know the answer to that right now. I would say this: I think that at least the U.S. fishermen are already – sort of have systems in place, so this shouldn’t, like, be that costly. And these are things that a lot of other commercial fishers are doing as a matter of their course for their businesses anyway.

QUESTION: But you already said it’s 90 percent imported.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Ninety percent is imported of our fish.

QUESTION: So even if Americans have already got the system in place, that’s going to be more expensive for foreign people to implement.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Or not. I mean, I think what it really was going to do was weed out the fish that has been illegally caught. The fish that’s been legally caught by commercial fisheries, they already have kind of supply chain management in any case, and so I don’t – we don’t expect this to be a huge financial burden, because these systems exist. It’s not like they have to, like, create them all from scratch. That’s a very good question and will have to remain to be seen, but we don’t anticipate some huge spike in fish prices as a result of this.

QUESTION: But you – the contention that’s made on overfishing is that if you actually limit the catch, in the long run prices come down, because you’re actually helping against the problem of scarcity, right?


QUESTION: Even if there might be an initial bump because less goes on the market immediately, then at some point it comes down, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, our fisheries were completely overfished, and then NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put in very strict limits about how much fish could be caught, and now our fisheries have rebounded. And the same thing has happened in the EU. So the ocean can rebound, but you’ve got to give it a chance to do that.

QUESTION: Iceland had a quota trading scheme, didn’t it? Has that been --


QUESTION: Iceland imposed a quota trading scheme. Not only was there a quota on fish, but you could sell your quota to a more efficient fisherman.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know what they did. I --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, I’ve heard of that, people – countries doing that, but I didn’t know for sure.

QUESTION: That’s not something that you considered in the United States?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think – we think this is a better – it’s – this way you are legally fishing. There’s all kinds of international management agreements of fish in different regions of the world, and so this really allows those things to function without setting up some very complex system.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible) some of those systems – like in Alaska, they have a quota system, and we’ve moved in to (inaudible) in some of our fisheries domestically. But it’s a fishery-by-fishery basis.

QUESTION: So the initial announcement on this was last year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: At the Our Oceans Conference, what we did is we announced – we did not announce this level of specificity.

QUESTION: Okay. (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We just said we were going to have a committee look at what to do about illegal fishing. We brought 18 government agencies together and really rolled up our sleeves and said, okay, what’s the best way to do this that captures the state of the art, is the least burdensome, and the most effective? And this is what we came up with.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: (Inaudible) recommendations.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right. I mean, there’s several other recommendations about implementing Port State Measures Agreement and working on technical assistance, et cetera. But with regard to this piece of it, that’s where it came from, was this --

QUESTION: And so you’re announcing the – what’s new --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re basically announcing a new traceability --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, that we’re actually implementing a traceability – because we didn’t know that that’s what we were going to do at the time that we set it up.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We had to kind of look at the landscape of things and then say, okay, this is the thing that makes the most sense.