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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Preview of the U.S. Department of State "Our Ocean" 2014 Conference

Catherine A. Novelli
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 

Washington, DC
June 13, 2014

 11:00 A.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Thank you all for joining us today here at the Washington Foreign Press Center and via digital videoconference from New York. It’s my honor to introduce Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Catherine Novelli, who is going to give you a preview of the Our Oceans Conference. It’ll be held next week at the State Department on June 16th and 17th. At the initiative of Secretary Kerry, the conference will bring together policymakers, including heads of state, government ministers, experts from the private and public sector, and other stakeholders to discuss how we can cooperate to preserve our priceless shared natural resource, which is our oceans.

You all have Under Secretary Novelli’s bio, so in the interest of time, I’ll just have her step up to the podium and give you some remarks, and then we’ll move to the Q&A. Ms. Novelli.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here to be able to give you some background on the conference. And as was explained, the conference is going to be bringing together all the layers of society, because we believe that this ocean, which is all one ocean with currents that run in between, is – it’s a global ocean, it’s a global problem, and it requires all the layers of society to work together in order to solve some of the most pressing problems that we are facing today on the ocean. So that is why this is a conference that has civil society, the private sector, ministers, heads of state, the NGO community, and regular people.

And you may have already seen that we have started by pushing out our outreach to just regular individuals through a call to action that the Secretary did, and we are getting a very good response to that on Twitter, on Facebook, and the Secretary has a video which you can find on our website at, where he outlines the call to action.

But essentially, we’re asking individuals to do their piece on this, and we’ve picked three very simple things that they could do. They can ask whether their seafood is sustainably caught and only eat sustainably-caught seafood. They can not throw trash in the waterways and the oceans, and they can pledge to spend at least one day a year cleaning up beaches. So these are very simple things. The conference is going to address the more complex things that involve three main areas that we decided to focus on, and we decided to focus on these three areas after consulting with experts on what is happening in the ocean, and because we wanted to make this conference not just a discussion, but a place where tangible results were going to be produced and where we could set up a plan of action for continuing tangible results.

So we picked three areas. The first one is overfishing, the second one is pollution of the ocean, and the third one is ocean acidification. And so we are going to be looking at ways to solve these problems, and one of the things that we found in putting together the conference is that as we reached out throughout the world to talk with people who are solving these problems in their local communities, there are solutions, and I think that we want to highlight those at this conference. And so we are bringing to the conference problem-solvers from all over the world. We’ve made this a very global conference so that they can talk about how they are solving these problems and addressing them, and we can spread that word out in a more broad way, and that that can form the basis for catalytic action.

We are also going to be announcing a number of very concrete deliverables, actions that countries are taking and a number of the heads of state are coming here to make those announcements. We will have announcements on behalf of the United States. And we are hoping that this is going to form a virtuous ratchet-up of activity on oceans that we can take into other fora as the year goes on, as the years go on, so that we can really work on the concrete resolution of these problems.

And so I’m going to stop here and take your questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. If I could ask you to please identify your name and your outlet, and in New York, please step up to the – sorry, the mike’s not on. In New York, please step up to the podium in New York for your questions.

Okay. And we have one in the back.

QUESTION: It’s okay here?


QUESTION: I’m from Icelandic Broadcasting Service, and Iceland is one of the biggest fishing nations in the Northern Atlantic. Iceland has developed a system of sustainable fishing and have renowned scientists in international area. So I wanted you to expand on why Iceland is not invited to this conference.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, we have a very excellent relationship with Iceland. Iceland’s a NATO ally, they’re a key partner, and as you said, they are an absolute leader on a number of things, clean energy, and an expert on a lot of fishing and have done a very good job on a number of some of the fishing issues that are out there.

Because of Iceland’s commercial whaling practices, we didn’t think it was appropriate to have Iceland at this conference, but we are going to continue to work with the Government of Iceland and experts in Iceland on – as we move ahead on all of these issues.

QUESTION: But is this part of a (inaudible) more pressure on Iceland --

MODERATOR: Sorry, can you use the mike, please?

QUESTION: There’s a change of policy? Are you simply putting more pressure on Iceland to stop commercial whaling?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: We have – we are – have not changed our policy at all. We’ve had a very consistent policy that we do not agree with Iceland’s policies on commercial whaling, and Iceland was designated under something that, in the U.S. law, is called the Pelly Amendment. So there’s no change in our policy, but that is the reason.

MODERATOR: Okay. A question here?

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you. I am from Kyodo News, and speaking about whaling, I had the same question regarding Japan. Recently, Prime Minister Abe said that he was going to resume commercial whaling despite the recent ICJ ruling, and I wondered if you had any comments about that.


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: No, whaling is not covered in this conference. We are talking about – as I said, we are talking about overfishing, which really goes to the fish stocks that people use for food. And I know some people eat whales, but we are not talking about whaling in this conference, so it is centered on the whole question of overfishing. A number of fish stocks are actually at the edge of being overfished, and we have a huge number of people who rely upon fish as their primary source of protein. So it’s actually an international security issue in addition to just a conservation issue.

QUESTION: Regarding my question on Prime Minister Abe, do you – sorry. Regarding my question about Prime Minister Abe, do you have any comments?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: No, I don’t have any comments about that.

MODERATOR: Okay. Other questions? Yes, same row.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. My name is Keisuke Yoshimura for Kyodo News also. What kind of – is – you referred to the plan of action. What kind of output can we expect in the end of the conference? Like, declaration summary in text or something?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, in terms of the actual things that people are going to be announcing, they’re – I don’t want to give you the list because obviously that’s for the conference. But if people are looking at how they can protect areas of the ocean from fishing to keep them pristine, we’re looking at questions of traceability for fishing so that you can try to combat the illegal fishing that’s done.

On ocean acidification, we’re looking at questions of how do you monitor the acidification of the ocean because it is not uniform, and how the currents work is not known. So are there specific things that we can do that would allow shellfish farmers, for example, to mitigate the effects of this as they’re trying to farm?

On the pollution side, we expect there to be announcements made there about everything from recycling to science-based approaches to fertilizers, which are a huge cause of problems and dead zones because of the runoff from the land, as well as the use of plastics and how those can be reformulated. So it goes across the board.

QUESTION: I mean, can we have some text in the end of the conference or on the beginning?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, in terms of – at the end of the conference, I mean, I think our hope is that we’re going to, besides having these very specific actions that people are going to announce they’re taking upon themselves – governments will announce, there’ll be some NGOs, some companies – in addition, we will try to do a summary for what needs to be done on a path forward that we can all move on to get more concrete things done, because in our view actions are the important thing here and not just words. So we’re trying to catalyze action and very specific action.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Zhang Hong. I’m from China’s Caixin Media. So would you please explain a little bit more about the background of this conference? Is it the first time of – the conference – of this kind? And there’s – it says that there are participants from more than 80 nations, but we are seeing only a list of heads of states of a dozen nations, maybe. So could you give us a better idea where – which these 80 nations are? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: In terms of the conference itself, it’s the very first conference of this type that’s been ever hosted by the State Department. There have been other conferences on oceans that take place and have taken place– and they focus on various issues because there’s a lot of issues surrounding the ocean. I think it’s fair to say this is the first conference of this type where we’re actually marrying up all these different layers of society and the way that we’re doing it and where we are trying to achieve very concrete commitments from each layer. So I think it’s fair to say that that is the first of its kind.

In terms of the participants, there are participants from over 80 countries. We have several heads of state. We have several foreign ministers. We have a number of environment ministers and we have a number of senior officials, and so I don’t know the exact list that you have, but there are over 80 countries who’ll be represented. And I’m not quite sure if we have a comprehensive list of every attendee that’s available at this moment, but it’s – almost all of the major countries involved in these issues are going to be there, and certainly China’s going to be represented by your Administrator Liu, who’s in charge of environment and fisheries.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question in the front.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Good morning. I’m from – my name is Boris Makarov, and I am from Russian news agency ITAR-TASS. So my question is: How can you evaluate the cooperation of Russia and USA in this ocean protection issue, and are there any specific projects on this? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, we have had a long history of working with Russia on oceans issues, and we certainly work with Russia on the Arctic Council and will continue to do so. I am not aware of any specific projects of cooperation at this moment, but we are looking forward to working constructively with the Russian Government on these global issues.

MODERATOR: Okay. In the middle row here – oh. Mike’s on the other side.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m from Inter Press Service. So I was wondering, because acidification is not an issue that’s as commonly covered as, like, overfishing. If you could speak a little more describing that issue, and also, like, what areas of the world are most affected by that, and if areas of the United States’ oceans are affected by that?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, the entire ocean is acidifying, and it is acidifying at an incredibly rapid pace. It’s like, what, if you take the last 50,000 years, it’s acidifying more in the last, like, 15 years than it has in the whole last 50,000 years. That comes from CO2 emissions that come from air pollution, and then it goes down into the ocean and it changes the – actually, the mix of the ocean and the creatures who live there who are used to a certain acidity level. And if you’ve ever had a fish tank, which I have tried to maintain for many years, you’ll know that is an incredibly delicate balance, and once it gets out of balance, things can’t survive.

And so what we’re doing now is – there’s a small project that the Prince of Monaco has started to try to actually measure where is this acidification taking place. It’s not uniform throughout the ocean because there’s many currents, and so water moves around. So where is this taking place, and how can we establish early warning systems? How can we, first of all, measure this in a much more precise detail than we have today, and a more uniform detail? And then how can we talk about early warning systems, because it absolutely affects shellfish farmers, who are very sensitive to these acidity levels.

There’s been some pioneering work done off the coast of Oregon, where shellfish farmers have worked with the government to – the state government to monitor this and give them a heads up if the acidity level’s changing further out so they can actually shut off their water intake from the ocean and preserve their shellfish until the waves go past and go in a different direction.

So we’re trying to look at questions of monitoring and adaptation. And obviously, the final solution for this is going to have to be one that addresses climate change issues and what’s going on in the climate. There is an entire discussion, though, that is going on in the UN and under different auspices on climate. So we weren’t going to take that part on; we’re going to just talk about the piece that is the ocean and what we can do in the short and medium term while people work on the larger climate issue.


QUESTION: Just to follow up a little bit, wouldn’t this conference benefit from the knowledge of Icelandic scientists and politicians, and could you explain exactly what is so appropriate – inappropriate of inviting Iceland?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, under the – I fully acknowledge that Icelandic scientists and experts are very expert, and that Iceland is a huge fishing nation, and they have been a key partner for us in Arctic issues, in promoting human rights. But under the Pelly Amendment, we are in a position where we are not going to be able to invite Iceland, unfortunately, to these kinds of large events. And so that is where we stand at the moment.

MODERATOR: All right, are there any other questions? Okay. Are you okay with second questions?


QUESTION: Sorry. Keisuke Yoshimura for Kyodo News. As I talked before, these programs are talked under the United States – the United Nations and various institutions in a concerted way. But I want to ask you why United States host this conference? What is – is there a complementary or interconnected issues effort?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Yes – no, it’s absolutely complementary, and there are a number of – for example, in the fishing area, fish management organizations. There are several fish-managing treaties. In fact, there’s a new treaty called the Port State Measures Agreement that the United States has just received advice and consent from our Senate on, and we are trying to get the critical mass of countries needed to have it enter into force. So that’s one of the things we’re going to be working on at this conference. So the UN is absolutely involved. There are numbers of other regional fish management and other things that are involved, and so we absolutely see this as complementary to those actions.

We – Secretary Kerry, as you know, is passionate about the ocean, as am I, and he felt, rightly – at least from the feedback we’ve received from around the world – that we needed to elevate these issues, because they are food security issues and they are foreign policy issues, to a level that’s more than just having experts talk to each other. And so that’s why we’re hosting this conference, and we’re looking forward to elevating these issues and have them stay elevated so that we can get even more action than has happened to date to try to solve these problems.

MODERATOR: If there’re no more questions here – or there is another question here. Okay.

QUESTION: Hello. I’m Mai with TV Asahi. First, sorry, I didn’t do my background research. Can you tell me if Japan will be represented in this? And also I wanted to know how you plan to get all the things that are discussed in this conference out to the general public. Is there going to be outreach following this conference? And one last thing is: Do you plan on making this into an annual conference hosted by different countries every year, or have you gotten into that sort of planning yet?

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Okay. So the conference itself is going to be streamed live, and I guess I neglected to say that, so you’ll be able to attend it virtually. So the whole thing will be streamed live. There will be fact sheets that’ll be put out after the conference explaining all the different things that – the concrete things that are delivered, as well as sort of what’s the path for going forward.

And to your last question about do we want this to be an annual conference, we are looking forward to having other countries take up this at a high level and move it forward, because I think the thing that’s important is getting people together to share their experiences, but then trying to build on that so that people have goals that they can meet. And there’s nothing like having some – a meeting that can produce sort of, “All right, we have to get this done by a certain time.” And so those things can be very helpful for actually getting that kind of concrete action. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in the in-between time too, and we’re going to be absolutely working on that too.

QUESTION: Okay. And then Japan. Will --

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Japan. Japan will absolutely be represented. I don’t have the list of all the officials who are coming, but there’re several officials from Japan coming.

MODERATOR: Okay, another question in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you, another question. So since this going to be hosted by the State Department, does it mean that the ocean issue has been moved higher on the agenda of the United States climate diplomacy? Can you say that? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY NOVELLI: Well, the ocean issue is – as I said, it’s related to climate diplomacy. And as you may know, there’s been a great deal of work done on that already. But the ocean issue also has its own issues, and so yes, I think it’s fair to say that we are elevating this issue from an issue that’s been – being dealt with by experts in a very good way to trying to elevate the visibility of this issue to a higher level, to make it into a foreign policy and domestic policy issue that’s more broad than just as it has been to date.

MODERATOR: Okay. Well, I think you’ve answered all the questions, so thank you very much for coming today.


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