Our Ocean — Our Responsibility

John Kerry
Oct 2, 2015 · 5 min read

One of the perks of being Secretary of State is getting to borrow some of the amazing artwork in the State Department’s official collection. One of my favorite pieces hangs on the wall in my office at Foggy Bottom — a painting of Boston Harbor by the great Robert Salmon. It was painted in the 1830s, but every time I look at it, it’s clear to me that Salmon felt the same love and respect for the sea that I and many, many others feel today, nearly two centuries later.

I learned very early on to marvel at the wonders of the ocean. My mother came from a long line of sea merchants, and my father was a passionate sailor who had me on a boat by the time I was three. Over time, I also came to appreciate how important it is to protect its waters, so my children and grandchildren can enjoy and benefit from the open sea — just as Robert Salmon did long ago, and just as I have. Stewardship of our ocean was a huge concern for me during my 28 years in the Senate, and it’s certainly a top priority for me today as Secretary of State.

The fact is, it should be a top priority for all of us — because the ocean is the lifeblood of our Earth.

It’s responsible for cycling things like water, carbon, and nutrients throughout our planet so we have air to breathe and water to drink, and it is home to millions of species. Protecting our ocean is an economic imperative: In the United States, more people are employed in the ocean economy — sectors like fisheries, tourism and recreation — than are employed in telecommunications, electric power generation, and home construction combined. And a healthy ocean is also a necessity for global food security, given that more than three billion people depend on fish as a major source of protein.

Whether you live on the coast or hours from the closest beach, we all depend on the ocean. The ocean is critical to maintaining life on Earth, contributing to our livelihoods and our well-being. Yet, the ocean is facing significant challenges, such as unsustainable fishing practices, marine pollution, and ocean acidification. The good news is that there are solutions.

That’s why the current state of our ocean is so alarming.

Over the past few decades, human activity has severely damaged nearly every aspect of the ocean we share.

Because of unsustainable and illegal fishing, almost 30 percent of global fish stocks are overfished. An entire family of fish that includes species like tuna and mackerel could soon be completely wiped out. Today populations of these species are just a quarter of what they were in 1970.

Because of poor waste management and ineffective ocean clean-up, every year at least eight million metric tons of plastic waste makes it into the sea. In 1960, about five percent of seabirds had ingested plastic waste. Today, that number has risen to 90 percent. If we keep it up, researchers estimate that by 2050, 99 percent of all seabirds will have plastic debris in their systems.

Finally, because of our continued reliance on dirty sources of energy, the chemistry of our ocean is changing — rapidly. Nearly a third of the greenhouse gases coming out of a tailpipe or smokestack end up getting absorbed by the ocean. But when carbon dioxide dissolves into saltwater, it forms carbonic acid. As a result, the ocean is acidifying 10 times faster than it has at any point in the past 50 million years, stunting the growth of shellfish, degrading coral reefs, and putting the entire marine food web at risk. If it sounds bad, that’s because it is. But there’s some good news here, too: It’s not too late for us to change course. Even better: More and more people around the world are coming together to do just that.

Last year I convened government leaders, philanthropists, scientists, and civil society leaders for the first-ever global Our Ocean conference in Washington, DC. I challenged those who attended to help ensure we’d walk away from the conference hall with a plan to save the ocean. In the end, not only did we have a plan laying out a number of clear steps we needed to take, but we also left with $1.8 billion in pledges to protect the ocean and adapt for a changing future, and commitments from governments around the world for the formal protection of more than 4 million square kilometers — an area of ocean larger than Europe.

Over the past year, we’ve made real progress on many of the commitments announced at Our Ocean 2015.

Thanks to President Obama’s decision to expand the United States’ Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, we’re moving closer to our goal of designating 10 percent of ocean and coastal waters as Marine Protected Areas.

We’ve also begun developing a system to track seafood from where and when it is caught to where and when it enters the U.S. marketplace. Just think. If we Americans can make sure that our enormous market is open only to fish that are legally and sustainably caught; we can have a positive influence on fishing practices through much of the globe — just as “dolphin-safe” labels on tuna fish cans helped to transform the nature of that fishery two decades ago.

Meanwhile, we are also working closely with our international partners to reach an ambitious, durable and inclusive international agreement at the UN climate negotiations later this year. Not only will addressing climate change help to protect against increasingly frequent extreme weather events that can destroy coastal communities overnight, but cutting carbon emissions will also help to slow the rate of ocean acidification and protect shellfish, coral reefs, and entire ecosystems from increasingly unlivable waters.

Learn more by visiting www.state.gov/OurOcean

But our work is just beginning — and global cooperation matters more than ever. That’s why I’m so pleased that Chile will be convening the second Our Ocean conference on October 5–6 in Valparaiso. The conference last year helped to launch a wave of action worldwide, and I’m certain this year’s will do the same. I hope to see some of you down in Chile, but if you’re not able to join us, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Most of the conference will be live-streamed, so you can follow along online at www.state.gov and share your insight on social media using #OurOcean2015.

There isn’t a person on Earth whose life isn’t impacted every single day by the ocean we share. And we won’t be able to reverse the disastrous trends we’ve seen in recent decades unless we all recognize what’s at stake. No government, scientist, entrepreneur, or activist can do the job alone — it’s going to take all of us to save our ocean. So what are we waiting for? Let’s step up to our responsibility and get to work.

Andros Island and the Tongue of the Ocean, a deep oceanic trench in the Bahamas separating the islands of Andros and nearby New Providence, captured the attention of a camera-bearing member of the Expedition 25 crew orbiting Earth onboard the International Space Station, some 220 miles above. NASA Photo

Foggy Bottom (Archive)

Voices from the U.S. Department of State (2015–2017)

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