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Africa Regional Media Hub | Welcome Remarks by U.S. Secretary of State at the Our Ocean Conference

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good morning everybody. And Cathy, thank you very, very much. I hope everybody here will join me in expressing our gratitude to Cathy and her team who have done an absolutely superb job of preparing this, putting this together. Cathy, thank you very, very much. Appreciate it. (Applause.)

I also want to express my profound gratitude to all of the foreign ministers, environ ministers, ambassadors, all of your excellencies, ministers of the environment and oceans, all the NGOs, all of you who have come here together to represent more than 90 countries in official positions. And I want to particularly thank Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz in Chile for the wonderful job that they did last year, and I think we all should say thank you to Chile for their leadership. Thank you. (Applause.)

Also want to welcome the experts from academia, the NGO community, leaders from the public and private sector, from philanthropies, young people, concerned citizens everywhere who are watching this by livestream. So thank you for coming from near and far, and thank you for helping us to call attention of the world to the enormous challenge of protecting our ocean.

Now, I begin by confessing to all of you that this topic is in fact deeply personal to me, as I know it is for most of you here. And how could it not be? The sheer power of the ocean, its poignant, incomparable grandeur, is something that humans have felt viscerally from the earliest days. Our awe at the ocean’s life-giving power and its beauty has been captured by our most sacred religious texts, our great philosophies, our art and our literature. Achilles declared in The Iliad, “The ocean is the source of all.” Isaac Newton pursued, as he described, “the great ocean of truth.” Walt Whitman called the sea “a continual miracle.” Sarojini Naidu described the ocean as “our mother” and the waves as “our comrades.” And President John F. Kennedy remarked, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came.”

These sentiments have been echoed a million times over in a million ways – in poetry and literature, novels, in videos, movies. These sentiments are rooted in our gut, I think. And I inherited my own love for the ocean from my mother and father. My dad especially loved sailing, and he – when he retired, crossed the ocean three times in a small boat – one time actually drafting my mother as his first mate. And I remember how much he enjoyed the experience of being out on the open water, the mental tests, the uncertainties, as Dona Bertarelli will tell you. The marine life that he observed all around him, the power of the wind and the waves, the changing mood of the sky and the sea.

And when I was seven or eight years old, he recruited me to sit as the lookout in his 15-foot bass boat as we crossed this lovely body of water with an unlovely name – Buzzard’s Bay – in my home state of Massachusetts. My dad would sit under a tarpaulin with a compass and a stopwatch, and he made me sit as the lookout in order that he could practice steering solely by compass and by stopwatch. And once in a while, I had fun as a mischievous kid in warning him of an imminent collision or conversely telling him we were doing just great when we were way off course. (Laughter.) Many years later, shortly before he passed away, I reminded him of this extraordinary training. And he said, “I can’t believe I was dumb enough to let you do that.” (Laughter.)

So whatever his rationale at the time, I will always be grateful for the days we spent on the water, and today even, the sea brings me a special sense of tranquility and peace, as I’m sure it does all of you.

So for me, and I know for you, for literally billions of people around the world, that connection with the ocean is not just emotional, not just a question of admiring something glorious and unique, it is also existential. To put it simply, the ocean is essential to all life on Earth. It is responsible for almost 50 percent of the oxygen that we breathe, for the food that we eat, for the climate in which we live, for the employment of hundreds of millions of people around the planet. The origin of life on our planet can be traced to the sea, and today the ocean is also the economic lifeblood of communities big and small on every single corner of the world, employing roughly 12 percent of the world’s population. Global revenue from marine fisheries and from related industries is in the hundreds of billions of dollars every single year.

But despite our knowledge and appreciation of the oceans’ importance, despite the inexorable link between the ocean and our variability to exist, we – humans – have been systematically undermining the ability of the maritime environment to nurture, perhaps even survive and sustain life. For decades, even centuries, we have been polluting and pillaging the resources of the sea with devastating consequences for our coastal communities and our marine ecosystems.

Why, against our own interest, is this happening? Well, there are probably a lot of reasons, but one big part of the reason is traced to the sheer enormity of the ocean. The landmass of every continent combined is smaller than the Pacific Ocean alone. Confronted by a resource so vast, it is really difficult to wrap one’s head around the notion, the idea that we as human beings could actually do something to threaten the oceans’ future. When we order seafood in a restaurant, it’s usually not written on the menu that a third of the world’s fisheries and fish stocks are overfished, or that nearly all the rest are being fished at absolute maximum. It’s no wonder that most people don’t realize that illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing costs the world tens of billions of dollars a year and is linked to organized crime, drug trafficking, and gross human rights violations.

Most of our citizens aren’t aware that fishing vessels operating lawlessly strip mine our ocean every single day and sometimes rely on slave labor to obtain bigger catches and larger profits. When you walk on a beach or near a beach or a family goes to the beach for a moment of the weekend or a respite, when you go swimming along a coast, it’s not immediately clear that there are more now than 500 dead zones in the ocean – an area where life simply cannot exist because of the level of pollution – or that pollution has reached such an extreme level that unless we change our practices, we will see more plastic in the ocean than fish by the middle of this century. When we go snorkeling or scuba diving, if anybody’s lucky enough to do it, the untrained eye can’t tell that because of climate change the basic chemistry of our ocean is now changing faster than it ever has in the history of our planet – greater acidity than scientists can measure, and they can measure over 50 million years of time. And if that unraveling continues much longer, a significant chunk of marine life may simply die out because it can no longer survive in the very waters that have nourished it since time began.

To most of us, the ocean has been a symbol of permanence, an endless resource on which we thought we could always depend. And the truth is that the sea itself will never cease, but the same cannot be necessarily be said for us or for the life within it. As far back as 1951, the American writer and environmentalist Rachel Carson acknowledged this fact. She wrote, “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist. The threat is, rather, to life itself.” Now, think about that. Carson made that observation 65 years ago. And all of us are here today because we understand clearly we – humans – have not responded sufficiently to that threat or other warnings. We’re here because we have to do more and we have to do it faster. We’re here because we’re not going to be the prisoners of history; we’re going to change the course of history, and that’s the commitment that brings us here.

In recent years, after decades of denial and neglect, we have in fact begun to chart a new course. The global community has begun to demonstrate a willingness to honor the responsibility that we have to future generations. Consider, for example, the first two of Our Oceans conferences that were held here in Washington, Valparaiso that Cathy referred to a moment ago. As Cathy mentioned, those events generated more than $4 billion of commitment to conservation and other kinds of pilot projects and initiatives to deal with coastal communities and fishing and so forth, and more than 6 million square kilometers of newly protected ocean. But it’s still a fraction of the size of the oceans itself – in the single digits and fractions thereof.

The progress that we’ve made on rule of law initiatives like the Port State Measures Agreement is just as encouraging. The PSMA, as it’s known, was the first international treaty that was aimed at preventing illegally caught fish from making it to the market. That accord was actually drafted nearly 10 years ago in 2007. It was finalized by international parties right here at the U.S. State Department, but guess what? It sat and it sat and it sat.

When we convened the first of these conferences in 2014, only 10 nations had ratified the PSMA, far short of the 25 states required to bring that agreement into force. Well, all of us together decided we can do better, and we did, in part because of the international focus driven by Our Ocean conferences. Today, I can tell you more than 60 nations, including the United States, have now ratified the Port State Measures Agreement, and that is critical. (Applause.)

And as a result of that, from now on, it’s going to be much more difficult for illegal fishing, illegal fishermen to come to port and be able to market their fish. We create accountability, which is critical.

The Our Ocean conferences have also placed a spotlight on the connection between climate change and acidification and the warming of our ocean. And many of the governments and organizations represented in this room have supported critical scientific efforts to expand our understanding of the impact of greenhouse gases and their emissions on our marine ecosystems. And many of you have been working extremely hard to accelerate the essential transition to global low-carbon economy, which we know is by far the single most effective way to deal with climate change.

In Paris last December, we gaveled in the most ambitious, most far-reaching, and we hope enduring global climate change agreement in history – an agreement that was drafted with the support and input of not only 200 countries that – almost 200 countries that adopted it, but of civil society, the private sector, the religious community, subnational leaders, and others. And now, we are working together to bring that agreement into force as quickly as possible. And just next week in New York, nations will have an opportunity to do that, and in the next two months, hopefully to bring this into force before the end of this year.

I like to think that particularly with the two largest emitters, regrettably, China and the United States joining together – we’ve begun to set a mark that can, in fact, indicate the seriousness of purpose of the most significant emitters, and obviously those responsible for living up to assistance to less developed nations that don’t have the wherewithal. And I think the fund is strong and growing and that will happen.

So I’d just close by saying to all of you, make no mistake about what brings us here today or the commitment that I think exists in these chairs and around this dais. Year by year, we are doing more and more. But the reason that we’re here in Washington today is that we know we have to keep building our momentum. We can’t just take a few steps and then rest and go home. I saw that. I was involved in 1970 in the environment movement in our country and the first Earth Day. And I remember we passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act. We did all these things and everybody said, oh, great, it’s done. Well, it’s not done. There’s no final victory in this business when it comes to protecting the environment, but there can be a final defeat.

So we have to do our work. We have to make a sustained and universal commitment to keep moving forward in every way that we can for as long as we have the power to do so. And like Our Ocean conferences in the years past, this gathering is not about just talking. It’s about catalyzing specific steps that we will take. We’re not here to just talk. We’re here to discuss real, concrete actions that can make a difference.

President Obama got the ball rolling earlier this month when he expanded the marine protected area off the coast of Hawaii, creating the world’s largest marine protected area. And in a little while, he will be here to tell you about another one that he’s designating this morning in New England, the first no-take marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean. And I have it – (applause) – and I have it on very good account that we’re going to hear about a few more from many of you here this morning.

We’re also going to discuss new ways to monitor and to address climate change on our ocean. We’re going to examine innovative means for mitigating the flow of pollution from land to sea. And we’ll continue to outline further plans for the global community to come together to preserve our fish stocks and prevent illegal fishing. And we need to make sure, all of us, that no patch of ocean is beyond the law. And as you will hear later today and tomorrow, that is exactly what the Safe Ocean Network and so many of us here are partnering together to design and to try to accomplish.

The bottom line is that none of what we are working toward, as I said earlier, is beyond our capacity. This is not a question of what do we do, this is a question of the willpower to do what we know we can do. And if we make the right choices, if we set the right priorities, if we respond to the same understanding that saving our ocean isn’t just an option or a priority, it’s an absolute necessity, we will get there. We have to think big and we have to think small at the same time.

More than 300 years ago, the French writer Blaise Pascal observed the least movement is of importance to all nature, the entire ocean is affected by a pebble. It is certainly true that the actions of mankind, the choices that we have made as a society, are in large part responsible for the dire state of the ocean today. But it’s also true that we are the only ones who can repair the problems that we have created.

With every positive step that we take, with the marine protected areas that we create, with the networks that we create and the safeguards that we enforce to protect against illegal fishing, with the cooperation we pursue to combat climate change and to deepen scientific research – with each of these steps, we drop a pebble on the side of restoring and preserving the health of the ocean. And in doing so, we will create a current fueled by the energy of literally millions of advocates and activists, a current that can correct the course of history, that can preserve our coastal communities and ecosystems, that can strengthen fisheries, and feed the billions who will inhabit this planet, and that will allow us to keep for future generations the majesty of the ocean that covers three quarters of our planet and sustains life around the equator from pole to pole.

That is the purpose that brings us here for these two days and beyond. That is the assignment that we have set for ourselves and that is the cause that we are going to advance today and tomorrow and well into the future. And in so doing, as grandparents, as parents, as public people, and as citizens, we will live up to the responsibilities that each of those roles demands.

I think you’d all agree there isn’t a much more important objective that we could possibly pursue, so I thank you very, very much, all of you, for joining in this effort. Let’s get to work. Thank you. (Applause.)

Distributed by APO on behalf of U.S. Department of State.