Assistant Secretary General Speech


October 26, 2015 - Washington, DC

Good afternoon. I am pleased to welcome you to the House of the Americas and to the 67th OAS Policy Roundtable on “Oceans and Climate Change”. The Oceans cover 70% of the surface and 99% of the living space by volume of the planet! Yet we are only beginning to understand the goods and services the oceans provide in terms of economic and ecological benefits. The value of the ocean in absorbing pollution, cycling carbon, regulating climate, harboring biodiversity and providing basic life support to our planet remains to be quantified.

Conservation and management of the marine and coastal resources has become an urgent cause for concern as the human induced impacts of overfishing, global warming, pollution, invasive species and unplanned nearshore develop¬ment increasingly threaten the health of eco¬systems and the essential benefits they provide to people around the World. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA 2005) asserts that 30 to 50% of ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands and global forests have disappeared or have been degraded to the point where the benefits they provide for nearby communities has been severely compromised.

Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions. Likewise, Oceans absorb about 30 % of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.

I am from Belize where there is an internationally acclaimed Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, comprising offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries – many managed in a System of Marine Parks. These habitats provide direct benefits to the Belizean people from fisheries and tourism and indirect benefits such as buffering hurricane impact.

Given the importance of our high seas -- effective ocean governance is critical.

Coral reefs cover about a tenth of one percent of the oceans and are sometimes referred to as “canaries of the sea” because of their early warning ability to show nearshore oceanic stress. Because of their high biological diversity, they are also called “rainforests of the sea”. However restricted they are in scale, coral reefs are vital to the well-being of millions of people.

The years 1997, 1998, 2005, and 2015 saw coral bleaching events that were particularly devastating for the Caribbean reef systems. Corals can survive many intrusions, including a bleaching event if it is not too severe. However, if the pollution or increased water temperatures is prolonged, coral eventually dies. This combination proved fatal for large extensions of reef systems and will require many years, if not decades, to fully recover. This die-back event also had several secondary impacts including increased beach erosion and diminished harvests of a number of economically important species.

In tandem to coral bleaching, huge mats of Sargassum seaweed have been washing up on Caribbean beaches for close to a year. These seaweed drifts sometimes accumulate as high as 3 to 4 feet on some beaches, creating negative ecological and health impacts to local populations, not to mention its unsightliness and the ultimate impact on tourism revenue. Sea Turtles have trouble nesting on beaches and baby sea turtles become tangled in the seaweed trying to reach the sea after hatching. Also the livelihoods of fisher-folk have been affected as they are unable to bring their catches ashore. In Antigua and Barbuda and St Lucia for example, people living in some coastal communities have had to migrate inland because of the suffocating smell from the Sargassum.

Whereas, Sargassum is a native and important ecological part of the Caribbean Sea sometimes called a “floating rainforest of the ocean”, quantities of this magnitude have never been seen before and may be another "canary in the coal mine" of humankind impacts on nature. Collaborative research on this subject could be one of the first functions of a proposed Inter-American Task Force for the Oceans, an initiative which is in its nascent stage and which I am sure will be discussed in detail in the days to come.

Countries throughout the Americas have been working with stakeholders at all levels to tackle issues of ocean conservation and governance. Several Caribbean countries, for instance, have launched The Caribbean Challenge Initiative (CCI): a coalition of governments, companies and partners working together to accelerate action on the marine environment signing the Declaration in May 2013 -- committing them to conserve 20% of their marine resources by 2020.

In the Fifth Summit of the Americas 2009 Declaration of Port of Spain, OAS member states furthered their commitment to ocean governance by recognizing how vital the conservation of marine resources and the protection of marine ecosystems are “for the continued economic and social well-being of those who live near or otherwise depend on the sea.” In particular, the ongoing efforts to consider the concept of the Caribbean Sea as a Special Area were noted in the context of sustainable development, without prejudice to relevant national legislation and international law.

Finally there is great advancement in international dialogue on the open ocean. Just last month at the Ocean Conference in Chile the host country established the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine park, the largest marine park in the Hemisphere which boasts a fully protected no-take zone where fishing and other extractive activities are not permitted. Twelve percent of Chile’s marine surface area is now protected, with Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park being the largest marine park in the Americas.

At that same conference the U.S. Government pledged action to protect the ocean by combating illegal fishing, cleaning ocean debris and addressing acidification. In addition, they launched Sea Scout, a new global initiative to unite governments and other stakeholders against illegal fishing.

The discussions at this “Oceans and Climate Change” Roundtable will be centered on successful practices, policies and mechanisms at the national, regional and hemispheric level that promote ocean conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

It is our hope that this roundtable helps facilitate cooperation and a constructive dialogue towards the strengthening of sustainable development conditions and the protection of the environment, which will, in turn, achieve safer, more democratic, and more inclusive societies in the Americas.

Welcome again to all of you and I wish you a fruitful discussion.