'Our Ocean' Conference Address
delivered 15 September 2016, Loy Henderson Auditorium, Washington, D.C.
Thank you, Secretary Kerry, for that unbelievable introduction and for your leadership on such a vital issue facing all of our future.
I was with you, as you stated, for the very first Our Oceans conference two years ago. And since then, this group, with your visionary leadership, has accomplished so very much. This conference has become a true platform for action. As a group, we have galvanized unprecedented action for our oceans, protecting millions of square kilometers in area, more than twice the size of India. We’ve elevated these issues to a global stage, and we’ve educated our leaders in the public on how much our climate, food security, economic security, and ultimately our future on this planet depends on the health of our oceans.
It’s critical that we keep this momentum up, though, because the future of our oceans continues to be challenged by an astonishingly long list of threats. Warming waters, acidification, plastic pollution, methane release, drilling, overfishing, and the destruction of marine ecosystems like coral reefs are pushing our oceans to the very brink. This year, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffered what is thought to be the largest bleaching event ever recorded. Over 600 miles of reef previously teeming with life is devastated. We are seeing this level of impact to coral reefs around the world from Hawaii to the Florida Keys, from Madagascar to Indonesia. I saw it with my own eyes filming the new film, Before the Flood, which chronicles the impacts of climate change.
Marine scientist Jeremy Jackson led me underwater in a submersible to observe the reefs off the coast of the Bahamas, and what I saw took my breath away: not a fish in site, colorless, ghost-like coral, a complete grave yard. This is the state of the majority of the world’s coral reefs and it is a sobering reality. We’ve destroyed irreplaceable ecosystems, reversing half a billion years of evolution.
I also recently visited Palau and met with the leaders of Kiribati, two island nations in the South Pacific that are feeling the impacts of a warming climate right now. Houses are being abandoned because of the rising tides. Whole communities face an uncertain future as their islands shrink, water closing in around them. The nation of Kiribati is already preparing for the unprecedented relocation of their people, having purchased land in Fiji to accommodate an almost certain migration from their home.
These nations are also dependent on the health of the seas for their economic survival. Tuna is the number one source of income in Kiribati. To prevent the collapse of this fishery, Kiribati created a marine sanctuary the size of California. They understand that protecting nature, giving it a chance to rebound and replenish, is the key to protecting the future of their nation, their culture, and their people.
We need more leaders and communities to take bold actions like this. As a global community, we must protect and value vital marine ecosystems, rather than treating the oceans as an endless resource to be exploited and as a dumping ground for our waste. Oceans absorb about a third of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere, but we’ve pushed it way too far. The ocean can no longer keep up with our rampant rate of carbon dioxide emissions.
Today, our seas are warmer and far more acidic, weakening the shells of marine creatures and destroying coral reefs that we all depend on for life. The only way we can avert this disaster is by innovative – scaling up innovative actions and solutions to these problems as quickly as possible.
One solution that is poised to address global overfishing and illegal fishing is a new platform called Global Fishing Watch. This innovative technology is a result of a powerful partnership that leverages the unique skills of each participating organization. Google’s ability to organize big data and inform and make it universally accessible, SkyTruth’s ability to use satellites to monitor threats to the planet, and Oceana’s ability to execute winning campaigns to bring back fishery abundance.
Today, this unprecedented technology is available to everyone in the world. I encourage everyone to go check it out here, in the watch room, and on your own devices, as you soon can get globalfishingwatch.org right in your hand. This platform will empower citizens across the globe to become powerful advocates for our oceans. With the data Global Fishing Watch provides, governments, fishery management organizations, researchers, and the fishing industry can work together, rebuild fisheries, and protect critical marine habitats. We encourage all of you to take advantage of this new technology and work together to effectively monitor and protect our seas.
Another critical issue is the global crisis facing sharks and rays. In recent years, markets for shark fin, liver oil, cartilage, leather, meat, and ray gill plates have surged while conservation efforts have failed to keep pace. As a result, it is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed annually, with over 90 percent of the population declined for some species, and nearly a quarter of all species are now facing extinction.
The Global Partnership for Sharks and Rays is a coalition working to halt the overexploitation of these species, reverse their decline, restore populations, and prevent extinctions. This collaborative effort, which is close to me personally, is also supported by the Paul M. Angell Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, Oceans 5, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. We join together to develop a global strategy to stop the slaughter of sharks and rays and to ramp up resources to change the tide for these incredible and important species.
These initiatives are great examples of what can be achieved when the right partners come together to solve these challenging problems, partners like all of you. There are many other exciting solutions and game-changing commitments that will be shared over the next two days. Among them are President Obama’s incredible announcement just a few weeks ago to create the largest protected area on the planet in and around the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Let’s give him a round of applause for that. And then again today, the President announced the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, an important marine ecosystem off the coast of Cape Cod. This is exactly the kind of bold leadership that we all need more of.
I am truly inspired by this group of people and all that you have done collectively to protect our oceans since the first conference, two years ago. But my hope is that this is just the very beginning. The great ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once said: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” That is true for me. I suspect it is true for each one of you. But there will be no wonders for our children and our grandchildren to behold, unless we step up and push ourselves to go bigger, to be bolder, and to take action now to protect our oceans before it is too late.
Thank you very much.
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Page Updated: 7/14/20
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