Remarks at the Opening of the 2015 Our Ocean Conference

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Valparaiso, Chile
October 5, 2015

Thank you very much and good morning to all of you, and let me begin by thanking our very, very generous hosts.  President Michelle Bachelet, thank you very much, and my colleague and friend, Heraldo Munoz, the minister – foreign minister of Chile, who exhibited extraordinary leadership when he stood up in Washington and said, “We are going to do the next conference,” and here we are with a really beautiful setting and a truly moving, remarkably beautiful and inspiring video and opening.  Your excellencies, all, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here. 

Literally last year as we were wrapping up our inaugural Ocean conference in Washington, our friends from Chile raised their hands at the end and literally volunteered to host this second conference.  And we agreed immediately to do the third next year, and we will seek yet another nation, we hope, to step up to make this a continuum, because it is absolutely critical that we create momentum. 

The words on the screen a few minutes ago, “We are killing ourselves,” it’s a dramatic and not insignificant statement.  But it has the virtue of being true.  I am passionate about the oceans because I’m passionate about life and the oceans are life.  We would not survive.  We wouldn’t be alive.  There’d be no climate regulation, there’d be no sink, as we call it, to consume massive amounts of carbon dioxide – so much so, that in the Antarctic recently, some was regurgitated.  And we don’t know where the saturation point is.  So we are playing with more than fire; we’re playing with life itself and the cycle, and the ecosystem.

I want to thank the U.S. team that worked together with our Chilean friends – Cathy Novelli, my under secretary of state, and the managing White House Council on Environmental Quality director, Christy Goldfuss.  And it’s beautiful.  It’s wonderful to be here in Valparaiso.  I looked out my window this morning and saw I was in the ocean, and it was inspiring.  I had the pleasure of growing up alongside the ocean myself.  I come from Massachusetts, and we boast of Cape Cod and the islands – Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket.  And the – I know that Valparaiso is known as the jewel of the Pacific.  Where I lived, a place called Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts was not known as the jewel, but it was my jewel. 

And we’ve been reminded of Pablo Neruda, whose works I love and have read for years – but when he says, “Necesito del mar porque me ensena,” we can see just watching that video how it teaches and inspires all of us.  And he said the ocean is “la universad del oleaje” – the waves, obviously.  I hope that came over.  (Laughter.)

Now, I’m confident that everybody here has at one point or another in their lives felt the incredible connection, the ocean.  President Kennedy once, at an America’s Cup event in Newport, Rhode Island, reminded people why we love the ocean so much.  And he pointed out that we have about 98 percent salt in our veins, all of us as human beings.  We come from the ocean.  In between humanity and the open water, there is a powerful emotional connection that is frankly very hard to put into words – unless you’re Pablo Neruda. 

But the connection we have to the ocean is much more than just emotional – it’s physical.  And the ocean is responsible for recycling water, recycling carbon for the nutrients throughout our planet so that we have air to breathe and water to drink.  And it’s a major contributor to global food security given that 3 billion people rely on ocean product as the principal source of their protein.

Obviously, we also have an economic connection to the sea.  About 600 million people around the world make a living through fishing, and millions more work in coastal tourism, marine recreation, shipping, and other ocean-related sectors.  Ninety percent of all trade travels by sea, and 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas. 

Now, I know all of you understand the fundamentals of the ocean – you wouldn’t be here if we didn’t – and that’s precisely why we started the first Our Ocean Conference, because things are happening that are literally out of control.  Because of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, one third of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited.  Almost every one of the major fisheries of the world are either in extremis or near extremis.  There’s literally too much money chasing too few fish, and we all know what happens in that economic equation.  The entire family of fish, for example – one entire family of fish for a species like tuna and mackerel is at risk of being completely wiped out.  We don’t have – Cape Cod is called Cape Cod; we don’t have a lot of cod anymore.  And populations of these species today are just a quarter of what they were in 1970. 

We’re not just fishing unsustainably, my friends; we are living unsustainably.  Our ocean is taking in a massive amount of pollution – 8 million tons of plastic alone every single day.  To put that into context, scientists say that the ocean may soon contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish.  Not only that, but the chemistry of our ocean is changing rapidly.  Why?  Because nearly a third of greenhouse gasses that are coming out of tailpipes of cars and smokestacks of power plants end up getting absorbed by the ocean.  And that may seem helpful, but when carbon dioxide dissolves into saltwater, it forms an acid – carbonic acid.  And as a result, the sea is acidifying 10 times faster than at any point in history, stunting the growth of shellfish, degrading coral reefs, and putting the entire marine food web at risk.

So the question isn’t whether the ocean matters, and it isn’t whether the ocean is at risk.  The real question is whether we, all of us on this planet, are going to adjust our ways in order to protect the ocean for generations to come.  The real question is one of leadership and stewardship and responsibility.  Last year I asked the many government officials, philanthropists, business leaders, and activists who attended our conference in Washington to do more than talk about the problems.  I asked them to identify and invest in solutions, and I challenged them to come together and chart a path forward to create a healthy and sustainable ocean cycle.  Many governments stepped up to the plate, including Chile, which deserves to be thanked for setting an extraordinary example of leadership.  Madam President, we thank you and Heraldo for doing that.

Chile has set aside new marine protected areas.  Philanthropic organizations and NGOs came forward with enormously generous contributions.  At the end of the day, we walked away with $1.8 billion of commitments for ocean protection and climate change mitigation and commitments to protect 4 million square kilometers of ocean – size roughly the size of Europe.  And that was just the beginning.  In the time since then, a number of new protected areas have been announced, including just last week when New Zealand announced a 620,000-square kilometer marine sanctuary in the South Pacific.  Later today I look forward to sharing some of the – it deserves – (applause).  And later today I really look forward to sharing with everybody some of the things, initiatives, we’ve taken as well as hearing about the productive efforts that everybody else is engaged in. 

There’s a lot of work ahead.  I just want to offer three quick areas where our discussions here in Valparaiso and our future initiatives could accomplish the most.  First, we need to do a better job of monitoring what is happening on the open seas.  Thanks in part to the step President Obama took last year to create the world’s largest marine protected area in the Pacific Remote Islands, we’re closer and closer to our global goal of protecting 10 percent of the ocean.  MPAs, marine protected areas, enable parts of the ocean to rejuvenate without human interference and they can serve as replenishment zones for fisheries and provide safe harbors for entire ecosystems. 

But we need to make sure that these areas are more than a line drawn on a map.  It is, of course, challenging to detect the illegal activities in MPAs, because many of them are vast and remote.  But technology exists today that can make this happen; it’s more accessible.  And over the course of this conference, I hope we can spend time discussing how to make the most of technology and better enforce our MPAs. 

Second, we need to double down on stopping illegal fishing.  It has grown into at least a $10 billion-a-year industry – illegal fishing.  And the only sustainable fisheries are legal fisheries.  Enforcing the law is essential for the survival of our fisheries in order to ensure fairness, and to keep organized criminal groups out of the ocean.  That makes this also a security issue. 

There’s a direct line between black market fishing, black market drugs, smuggling, and human trafficking.  And people need to focus in on that intently.  We have to make illegal fishing harder and more expensive to get away with, and the way to do that is through vigorous enforcement which puts as many thugs as possible behind bars. 

Ultimately, we need a global network that helps ensure that no patch of ocean is beyond the law – and this is something that I’ll discuss in greater detail later today.  But even if we don’t catch criminals in the act, we can still make it harder for them to profit from their bounty.  The United States can play an important role, because Americans import about 90 percent of the seafood that we consume.  That’s why we’re working to implement a new traceability program to track seafood from harvest anywhere in the world to entry into the United States.

Another important step we can take as a global community is bring the Port State Measures Agreement into force soon, and I applaud Chile for being one of the first countries to ratify it.  This treaty will give countries the tools that they need to ensure that fishing vessels do not land illegally caught fish in their ports.  And over the past year, three countries have announced ratification and at least seven others, including the United States, are close to finalizing the necessary work.  But obviously, you can hear the challenge when I tell you three countries and seven are close to doing it, and there are more than 200 countries in the world.  So we have our work cut out for us.

Finally, an issue that’s particularly relevant this year, and it is connected deeply to the survivability of the oceans and to the direction we’re moving, and that is climate change.  I mentioned earlier the grave harm caused by ocean acidification.  But the actual warming associated with climate change threatens marine species as well.  As ocean temperatures rise, species often relocate to cooler waters.  These shifts can cause ecological disruptions as predators lose sight of their prey.  It can also cause economic disruptions as fish populations become less productive or migrate beyond fishermen’s range.   

And between sea-level rise and increasingly frequent extreme weather – I woke up this morning, extreme weather in Asia, extreme weather in Europe, extreme weather in the United States, 500-year level floods – not a hundred-year.  A hundred-year used to be the exception.  Now it’s 500 and beyond.  Three months of rain dropping in three hours in several locations.  And people now say that the ocean currents are threatened and we could lose what has been a staple of our existence in the Gulf streams and other streams as they shift because of the shift in the temperature of the water.  And no one knows what the impact on climate will be as a consequence of that. 

So we have to do more, and we’re building towards Paris this December where we are determined to try to get a global agreement with respect to climate change.  We just had Pope Francis, Holy Father, come to Washington, and as he said:  “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.  When it comes to the care of our common house, we are living at a critical moment in history.”

We need to get a better understanding of where, why, and how acidification is happening so that we can determine the best ways to slow it down.  We can do more to safeguard important marine habitats like mangroves, wetlands, corals, sea grasses, which act as a natural shield from storm surges and flooding and which wind up often being the spawning grounds for the next generation of food.

And finally, my friends, we need to push hard – all of us – for this agreement in Paris because we all know that the target is to the keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees centigrade.  We also all know that we will not meet that target when we go to Paris.  It’s a critical beginning to send an important message to the marketplace so that the private sector will feel confident in investing, and that’s a multiplier effect which will take over and, in fact, do what we need to do. 

Over the next 15 years, roughly $17 trillion is expected to be invested in energy – and most of it, thank heavens, in clean and renewable energy – $17 trillion.  We can solve this massive challenge, and we can lift our economies at the same time providing we put that money into the new technology and the new future for energy, not the old.

So I’ll close by saying that protecting our ocean is, obviously, no small task.  As President Obama will make clear in a video in a few moments, the United States is deeply committed to working with all of you – with foreign ministers, heads of state, teachers, students, activists, business leaders in order to get this job done.  Last year’s conference initiated a wave of action, and today that wave continues to roll forward.  You can rest assured that wave is not going to hit shore or stop anytime soon; it’s going to build.  And I’m pleased to announce the United States will host the third Ocean conference next year to follow up on the progress we make here.  And with that, we’ll have more to say about specifics later.

I thank you all for caring, I thank you for being here, and I thank Chile for its critical leadership.  We are all deeply committed to this mission.  Thank you.  (Applause.)