WorldBoston Panel on the State of the Oceans
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
It’s a pleasure to be here today to discuss the state of the oceans, and in particular the role of the Department of State on oceans issues.
If you get the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic Sant Ocean Hall, you’ll learn that despite the various names we’ve given it – Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Southern – the ocean is really just one giant, interconnected ecosystem. Thus, many of the issues surrounding protection and use of the ocean and its resources – from maritime security to sustainable fisheries management – are inherently transboundary and multi-national in nature. Our government must engage with other countries if we hope to achieve our goals and advance our interests in the ocean. And much of that engagement takes place through the bureau I lead at the Department of State: the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, or OES.
OES was established in 1973 at the direction of Congress. Congress chose to put the word “oceans” at the beginning of the Bureau’s name for a particular reason: to emphasize the significance of oceans issues in the realm of U.S. foreign policy. When Congress took this action, the United Nations was launching a Conference that would result in the adoption of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. The OES Bureau would have as one of its primary responsibilities the job of advancing U.S. interests in these negotiations.
The good news is that the United States was very successful in these negotiations. The Law of the Sea Convention protects and advances a broad range of U.S. interests, including national security and economic interests. It codifies critical freedom of navigation provisions which enable vessels to transit the entire maritime domain, ensuring the mobility upon which our international trade and global economy depend. It is the foundation on which rules for sustainable international fisheries are based. And it provides the legal framework for exploring and exploiting mineral resources on and beneath the seabed beyond areas of national jurisdiction.
The bad news is that 30 years later, the United States is one of only a small number of countries that have not yet joined the Law of the Sea Convention. As a non-party, we often find ourselves unable to fully participate in organizations or meetings at which important U.S. interests are being discussed. We are also at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis the Parties to the Convention in maximizing the legal certainty and international recognition of our continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from shore. For these and other reasons, Secretary Clinton has repeatedly called for U.S. accession to this treaty as a matter of priority. We remain hopeful that the Senate will take up and approve this important treaty at the earliest opportunity.
While there are numerous international oceans issues that the United States engages on every day in bilateral and multilateral fora around the globe, I would like to focus here on three of our priority areas—the pursuit of sustainable fisheries worldwide, Arctic governance, and the U.S. extended continental shelf project. Then I’ll finish my remarks by looking ahead at a new and daunting challenge – ocean acidification.
Turning first to fisheries. The Department of State is actively engaged in international efforts to conserve living marine resources and protect the broader marine environment from a range of adverse impacts from fishing. In many parts of the world, overfishing of valuable stocks threatens the long-term sustainability of these resources, with serious implications for food security and economic development. This effect is especially acute in the world’s poorest regions, which are often the most dependent on the oceans for food and livelihoods. Reversing this course requires, first and foremost, sound and objective science to identify the measures necessary to ensure sustainability of these resources. There must be the capacity to collect reliable data to inform this science, and there must be capable scientists from all regions to carry it out. Second, policy decisions must be informed by the best possible science and data. And finally, all of the players – governments, harvesters, traders, even recreational anglers – must abide by these science-based approaches. Adopting such conservation measures is a first step, but their effectiveness depends on full implementation by all participants in a given region.
As a result, the United States gives particular importance – and devotes considerable resources – to efforts to combat illegal fishing in many parts of the world. We work closely with a number of countries, including many of the poorest and most vulnerable, to support and strengthen their capacity to enforce fisheries rules in the waters under their jurisdiction. Our “shiprider agreements” with many small coastal developing countries are one tangible example of this kind of support. These agreements allow enforcement authorities of these countries to ride along on U.S. maritime assets – from the U.S. Coast Guard and, more recently, the U.S. Navy – and use them as platforms to exercise their own national enforcement authority against vessels fishing illegally in their waters.
But our attention on these matters goes beyond the management and sustainability of the commercial resources themselves. A significant part of our focus is on mitigating the effects of fishing and related activities on species that are not the direct target of the fisheries, as well as on the broader marine environment. This includes protecting threatened and endangered species and unique or fragile marine habitats, often referred to as “vulnerable marine ecosystems.” For example, over the past few years, we have played leading roles in establishing two new international organizations, in the north and south Pacific.
Ecosystem protection and sustainable resource management are also critical in the ocean waters surrounding Antarctica. And the establishment of a marine protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea is a major environmental and conservation policy priority of the U.S. Government and of Secretary Clinton in particular.
The Ross Sea is widely considered to be one of the last great ocean wilderness areas on Earth. It supports one of the most productive ecosystems in the Southern Ocean, tremendous biodiversity, and a unique assemblage of species found nowhere else on Earth, including over one fourth of the world’s Emperor penguins and one half the Southern Pacific population of Weddell seals. It is also an area of significant long term scientific investment and study by the United States and many other countries. Unfortunately, the combined impacts of fishing, climate change, and other natural and human-induced changes are increasingly affecting this unique and productive region.
In late October the United States joined forces with New Zealand to propose the world’s largest marine protected area, or MPA, in the Ross Sea. This MPA would protect roughly 876,000 square miles of the Ross Sea – an area larger than the state of Alaska – in order to better understand and protect its fragile ecosystem, preserve its conservation and scientific value, and safeguard its ability to adapt to climate change. The proposal will be considered – and we hope approved – at a special July meeting of the international commission responsible for conserving and managing marine living resources in the waters around Antarctica.
Jumping now to the opposite pole, we will hear a detailed presentation on Arctic issues by my fellow panelist, Scott Borgerson. But I would like to highlight our work in the Arctic, as well, because this has also been a key priority for Secretary Clinton and the Department.
The Arctic region is commanding attention as never before, both here in the United States and in many other countries. Part of this increased attention results from climate change – the Arctic is warming faster on average than other parts of the planet. This is bad news. Receding sea ice, melting land glaciers and ice sheets, thawing permafrost – these and other climate-related phenomena are causing profound changes and serious challenges, particularly for the four million people who live north of the Arctic Circle, many of whom are indigenous.
But with these changes also come some new opportunities, as oil and gas resources become more accessible, Arctic shipping becomes more viable, and potential new Arctic fisheries emerge.
The United States must continue to work with other Arctic governments to confront these challenges and manage these opportunities in a responsible and far-sighted manner. Much of this work takes place within the Arctic Council, which is the preeminent multinational forum dealing with Arctic issues.
Established in 1996, the Arctic Council’s focus has been studying the pristine but threatened Arctic ecosystems, which until only recently we knew very little about. The Council has produced a series of landmark reports – including on human health and on marine shipping – and more recently has served as a forum for the development of the first two treaties among the eight Arctic governments – the first on search and rescue and the second on oil pollution preparedness and response. The latter agreement will be signed by Ministers next May.
The Arctic Council is an exceptional high-level forum because indigenous organizations sit at the table alongside countries, allowing those individuals most immediately affected by Arctic policies to shape them. For this reason, the United States annually allocates tens of thousands of dollars to support the travel of U.S. Arctic inhabitants to Arctic Council events, ensuring that indigenous interests are appropriately represented within the body.
Now, as the Arctic Council nears its 20-year anniversary and the United States prepares to chair the group from 2015 to 2017, we are pushing the Council to work on concrete problems and sharpen its focus on practical solutions that directly affect Arctic inhabitants and the region’s long-term environmental and economic stability.
Another key ocean issue for the United States – defining the full extent of our continental shelf – is particularly important in the Arctic. The U.S. continental shelf beyond 200 miles from shore, which we call the extended continental shelf or ECS, is likely to be at least one million square kilometers. Defining our ECS is important because countries have sovereign rights over the resources on and under their continental shelf. This includes everything from “sedentary species” such as clams, crabs, and corals, to oil & gas, to other mineral resources such as manganese nodules. The resources we might find on and under our ECS may be worth many billions of dollars. The United States, led by the Department of State, is engaged in a decade-long, multi-million dollar effort to identify the full extent of our continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, consistent with international law – in particular the Law of the Sea Convention.
Which brings me back to the beginning of my remarks. Because defining the geographic extent of our continental shelf is just the first step. Only by becoming a Party to the Law of the Sea Convention can we take advantage of the treaty’s procedure to maximize legal certainty and international recognition of the U.S. continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
To close my remarks, I’d like to look ahead at one of the ocean’s looming and most pressing challenges – acidification. This is what some scientists have referred to as “the other carbon dioxide problem.” Ocean acidification is occurring because the world’s oceans are absorbing increasing amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide, leading to lower pH and greater acidity. This change in ocean chemistry is a growing global problem that may have significant impacts on marine ecosystems, services, and resources. Studies have shown that a more acidic environment has a dramatic effect on some calcifying species, including oysters, clams, sea urchins, corals, and calcareous plankton. When shelled organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.
Along with activities we are conducting domestically to better understand and address the effects of ocean acidification on the marine environment, we believe that it’s critical to increase international collaboration on research, monitoring, and observations – particularly with regard to the effects of acidification on shell-forming organisms, marine biodiversity, and food security. Therefore, we were very pleased to be able to announce at this past summer’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development our financial and in-kind support for the establishment of a new Ocean Acidification International Coordination Center in Monaco. We believe that this center will serve as an important means to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the global effects of ocean acidification.
As I hope I’ve shown you this evening, the United States historically has taken – and will continue to take – a leadership role on the important oceans issues of our time. And we look forward to continuing our hard work to effectively engage our partners in other countries and international organizations to protect and sustainably manage the vast, interconnected ocean we all share.