Interview With the Discovery Channel's "Nuclear Sharks"

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Discovery Channel Headquarters
Silver Spring, MD
June 1, 2016

QUESTION: Thanks for joining us.

SECRETARY KERRY: Happy to be with you.

QUESTION: Thrilled that you’re here. So for Nuclear Sharks, a special that we produce for Shark Weeks, the goal was to figure out where all the sharks came from after all the testing in Bikini Atoll wiped out the shark population and somehow they’re back. And reef sharks aren’t known to migrate. And so the purpose of the piece was to figure out where they came from.

The – Philippe and Ashlan Cousteau joined an expedition to go out there tagging sharks and completed that. What they found, however – sort of an interesting surprise – is that of the 17 shark tags, half of those ended up in a zigzag motion to the Philippines or to Guam, certainly not the kind of direction that a shark would be going. They were – they ended up on fishing boats. So that is sort of the backdrop. And the surprise was at the end of this, the – a proposal was sent to the State Department as part of the Sea Scout program to see if maybe something – these tags – this sort of technology could be utilized to figure out – to more pinpoint shark fishing. That’s the background.

So could you tell me: What is Sea Scout? Tell me about Sea Scout.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Sea Scout is a creative initiative that we’ve put together in State Department to try to create a global enforcement mechanism for the rules of fishing. We have too much of the ocean that is ungoverned, and unfortunately, we have pirate fisherman out there who are using old and banned methods of fishing which literally strip-mine the oceans. They throw away a huge percentage of the catch, called bycatch. It’s extraordinarily wasteful and it’s unsustainable. So what we are trying to do through Sea Scout is use every resource at our disposal – NASA, satellites, tagging, tracking, the potential of increased monitoring on vessels themselves, licensing, surveillance – I mean every methodology to know what is happening in these areas. We’re even enlisting our militaries and the transiting ships or coast guards, and we’re working on creative projects to share personnel so we can cover these areas and prevent people from being able to bring illegally caught fish into the ports and sell them to the marketplace. So what this really is geared to do is have for the first time ever a – to destroy the impunity that has existed for illegal fishermen.

QUESTION: I don’t think a lot of the public realizes the impact of illegal fishing. What is – if you were to say, how widespread is illegal fishing?

SECRETARY KERRY: Extremely widespread, because you have huge sums of money chasing too few fish.

QUESTION: Let me, if I may ask --


QUESTION: I mean, could you say illegal fishing is extremely --

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, yeah, okay, sorry. Illegal fishing is a huge problem, and the reason it’s a huge problem is that there’s so much money in the marketplace chasing too few fish. So people will go to any lengths to be able to supply the fish to the vendor, put it in the restaurant, sell it in the market, and people want it. The result is that some people have chosen not to live up to the rules of sustainable fishing. They will go out and fish illegally, and it destroys all of your legal fishing mechanisms, because then they see the other guys profiting while they’re living by the rules.

It also destroys the oceans themselves as a habitat for living species, because if you have rampant fishing without regard to sustainability, we are destroying the future, and then it becomes a vicious cycle which harms everybody. So this enforcement mechanism, which actually is critical to life itself because so much of the planet relies on fish for protein, for its basic food, and also because the rate of destruction – now one-third of the world’s fisheries are overfished and the rest are at maximum, so about to be overfished. And if we continue to see more and more illegal fishing boats going out from one nation or another, we put at risk the very ecosystem of the ocean itself.

QUESTION: What are the challenges – I mean if you think of the Marshall Islands specifically – I mean, this is a very remote group of islands – and we saw – I mean, if – it’s a low sample – 17. Half of them were taken. Imagine if it’s a larger sample scale, though. What is the challenge with enforcing it? Like, why is it difficult catching and arresting illegal fishermen?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the challenge with enforcing – with being able to catch people in the act – is it takes people, and you’ve got to have ships or airplanes. You have to have the capacity to get there. You then have to have the mechanism and the law under which you can arrest them and actually prosecute them and hold them accountable. So there are a lot of places where you don’t have the law or you don’t have the mechanism or you don’t have the people or you don’t have the means of getting there. And that’s the gap we’re trying to fill now, because without it they win and we can’t afford to let them do that.

QUESTION: Right. And that’s a shark sanctuary, too. So this is – this is a large chunk of water that was – should have been protected.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the numbers of sharks being taken out of the water, obviously, is appalling, and – which is why the tagging efforts that are now growing on a global basis is so critical, because it allows us to track and trace, which is essential.

QUESTION: And obviously that’s a huge part of the Sea Scout initiative, the tagging part.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a big – well, it will be a big part. We’re --

QUESTION: Tagging --


QUESTION: I’m sorry, tagging --

SECRETARY KERRY: Tagging is new to the Sea Scout program, but it’s a pilot project that is absolutely worthy. And we have six other pilot projects that we’re working on at various parts of the world, and we’ll be announcing them in September 15th and 16th when we have the conference in Washington.

QUESTION: So we at Discovery are moving up on three decades of Shark Week. What would you say – what can – what can Discovery – what can Shark Week do to promote understanding of sharks and the value of sharks in the ecosystem?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, Shark Week – first of all, everybody knows about Shark Week and it’s become a big thing, and that’s great because then people tune in. People are fascinated by sharks. We’ve known that for ages. They’re misunderstood. And Shark Week can actually help people to understand how sharks are important to the overall system. Sharks are what we call apex predators, which means they’re at a place at the top where they are balancers of a number of different other predators and prey down the food chain, and they’re critical with respect to the overall cycle of the system. So if you destroy that, then the system gets out of balance and we don’t even know the consequences completely of what happens when it gets out of balance. But we should have a fundamental respect for the natural order, if you will.

QUESTION: And so you were a marine biologist in your last life? (Laughter.) That’s a pretty good explanation of apex predators.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I was not. But I’ve spent a lot of time on the water, a lot of time in the oceans, and I love the oceans and have a pretty good sense of the world within the ocean.

QUESTION: Wonderful. Anything you’d like to add, anything about sharks specifically? Shark Week?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. Shark Week is fascinating and hopefully a lot of people get a better understanding of why they need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

QUESTION: Very nice. Thank you, appreciate it. Okay.