Our Ocean Conference

June 16-17, 2014 U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.

In June, the Department of State hosted the first “Our Ocean” Conference. Heads of state, foreign ministers, policymakers, scientists, advocates, and entrepreneurs from nearly 90 countries attended to discuss ocean acidification and pollution, illegal fishing, and habitat loss. The conference resulted in more than $800 million in conservation commitments from governments and private sources.

Secretary Kerry:

Now I know you’re all very eager to hear from our special guest this morning, Leonardo DiCaprio. Here at the State Department, we are particularly grateful that Leo and his mother, Irmelin DiCaprio, are here, along with friends of the family, and that they took the time to join our conference.

… I got to know Leo particularly well during my campaign for president when he took time out of his life to put his celebrity to work on behalf of what he believed were the right choices for the country in terms of the environment, particularly. And he packed halls and rallies all around the country, and I’m pleased to say he packed them not as a star of the screen, but as a passionate advocate for the environment. He is a terrific example of how an artist, an actor, a person of celebrity can take that celebrity and make it meaningful in the context of things that matter to people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, more than being entertained. And he has used it to capture the public’s attention on this particular issue about the oceans.

I was very, very struck during the course of our time together about his seriousness of purpose. He doesn’t just lend his name to this kind of an effort casually. He does his homework. He knows the issues. He invests time to visit places where he can learn more about those issues. And he understands how to make the case effectively and persuasively. We have seen him do this through the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, where he fights tiger poaching in Nepal, helps to preserve the rainforest in Sumatra, and proves that you can make a difference even to the lives of elephants and wild tigers and orangutans, and that it matters to all of us that you do.

And just this year, he announced a $3 million donation to help protect the oceans’ habitats for marine species, for marine animals, particularly including sharks. I might even say that he’s been up close and personal. He was just telling me—I asked him about an incident where I heard a shark tried to eat him, and he said it was the first instance of a white shark jumping into a shark cage, where he promptly flattened himself and somehow avoided disaster. So that, my friends, is why he is here today.

It’s a privilege for me to introduce an activist who has made it his mission to try to help convey to people just why it is so important that we act now on our common responsibility as stewards of this planet, whether on land or on sea, so join me in welcoming Leonardo DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio:

Good morning, everyone. And thank you, Secretary Kerry, for having me here today and thank you for your years of leadership working to protect our oceans.

It’s fantastic to start off the day by hearing President Obama commit to expanding marine reserves in U.S. waters and taking serious steps to prevent illegally caught fish from entering the marketplace. Now, before I wanted to be an actor, I dreamt about becoming a marine biologist. As a kid, I always had a fascination with the ocean and its wildlife. In fact, the first philanthropic dollar I ever contributed was to save the wild manatee in Florida. I had never seen a manatee before, but I somehow felt connected to the plight of these animals who had no voice and no ability to save themselves from the devastation caused by human activity.

West India Manatees©Thediver123, Dreamstime.com

Today I feel just as connected and inspired by ocean life that covers most of our planet. As an avid diver, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some of the most pristine wild places on Earth, from my very first dive in the Great Barrier Reef to the Galapagos to Mozambique, Belize, and the islands of Thailand. And just last year, I got to visit Cocos Island, a national park off the shores of Costa Rica, where I had the opportunity to swim with 15 different species of shark—white tips, tiger sharks, and hammerheads—in one of the world’s largest natural shark sanctuaries, and I came out unscathed.

Tiger Shark©Naluphoto, Dreamstime.com

These experiences haven’t just been adventures. They’ve been educational for me. They’ve taught me just how fragile these ecosystems really are. Since my very first dive in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia 20 years ago to the dive I got to do in the very same location just two years ago, I’ve witnessed environmental devastation firsthand. What once had looked like an endless underwater utopia is now riddled with bleached coral reefs and massive dead zones. Recently, on the Cocos Island dive, we stayed inside a marine-protected area where it was technically illegal to hunt sharks or other marine life within 10 miles of the sanctuary, but every night we hopelessly watched illegal fishing vessels invade the waters just one mile offshore.

I’ve learned that with each passing day, so many of our aquatic species are in jeopardy—not because of nature’s unpredictability, but because of human activity. I’ve learned about the incredibly important role our oceans play in the survival of all life on Earth, and I’ve decided to join so many people that are working here today to protect this vital treasure.

Growing up, I remember hearing stories about the seemingly endless bounty that our oceans had to offer, how fishermen would cast a net a hundred years ago and catch 10-foot-long tuna or 18-foot-long sturgeon. It seemed like nothing would ever challenge the abundance the sea had to offer.

But today, we live in a very different reality. Because of modern industrialized fishing, ships are heading into ever-deeper waters in search of decent catch only to find ever-dwindling stocks. We have systematically devastated our global fisheries through destructive practices like bottom trawling, where huge nets drag across the bottom of the ocean for miles, literally scraping up everything in their path, permanently destroying abundant underwater forests teeming with every imaginable form of wildlife.

And while we’ve heard a lot about the impacts of climate change on dry land, the oceans will be the sink that absorbs the brunt of our pollution and the danger of higher temperatures. This is especially troubling since oceans are the source of most of our oxygen and life-giving nutrients on this planet. They dictate our climate, our weather patterns, and ultimately our own survival. Without healthy oceans we are in serious trouble, and the outlook for their health is not good.

I want to acknowledge the fact that significant commitments have been announced here over the last day to afford ocean protection. President Obama’s announcement will help to preserve coral reefs and other vulnerable areas, and help to deter black market fishing and seafood fraud in our markets through traceability and transparency initiatives. I also commend President Tong of Kiribati who just announced yesterday the full closure of commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area by 2015. That means that an area of the ocean the size of California is now completely protected.

I applaud these pledges and others like them made here, and I look forward to working alongside those who have made these commitments to ensure their success. But this is just the beginning. We need to do much more to scale these commitments globally, continuously building more urgency and momentum to match the magnitude of this massive global challenge. This isn’t simply an exercise in wildlife conservation. Several billion people a year depend on seafood as a source of protein, and yet we are failing to protect these vital waters. We are failing to set aside significant preserves that are off limits to fishing. We are failing to protect these critical ecosystems—the coral reefs, the forests of the sea, the tide pools, and the deep water canyons. We’re plundering the ocean and its vital resources. And just because we can’t see the devastation from dry land does not mean it’s any less dangerous to life on Earth, and it has to stop.

Unfortunately, today, there’s no proper law enforcement capacity and little accountability for violating the law. It’s the Wild West on the high seas. The ocean is an under-regulated marketplace right now. Even though the oceans cover 71 percent of our planet, less than 1 percent are fully protected as marine reserves where fishing is prohibited.

These last remaining underwater bio-gems are being destroyed because there isn’t proper enforcement or sufficient cooperation among governments to protect them. People who depend on these ocean resources for sustenance need to hear that governments are working to create strong systems of accountability for those who are destroying them. If we don’t do something to save our oceans now, it won’t be just the sharks and the dolphins that will suffer; it will be all of us, including our children and our grandchildren.

White Tip Reef Shark©Vladoskan, Dreamstime.com

You’ve all heard the bad news about the accelerated collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet recently, which is incredibly scary. And you’ve probably heard about the growing concern in the scientific community about the methane emissions driving rapid climate change in ocean acidification. Methane is a greenhouse gas far more damaging than carbon dioxide. There seem to be new stories every week about methane’s potential to send us beyond critical tipping points.

Yet these important stories are but a blip on the screen in mainstream media. What we need is a constant drumbeat about these tragedies unfolding before our very eyes and more attention towards the solutions that exist to avert them. Most importantly, what we need is action, sustained activism, and courageous political leadership. We cannot afford to be bystanders in this pre-apocalyptic scenario. We have to become the protagonists in the story of our own planet’s salvation. We need to step up now.

Hammerhead Shark©Rhk2222, Dreamstime.com

Now, the good news is we can do this together. As we’ve seen and heard in this conference, solutions exist all around us, but they will remain one-off projects or just ideas on paper until we commit to act on them on a global scale together. I’m standing here today as a concerned citizen of this planet who believes that this is the most important issue of our time. My foundation, as Secretary Kerry recently announced, gave a $3 million grant to the organization Oceana to support their efforts to support sharks, marine mammals, and key ocean habitats in the Eastern Pacific.

Today I am here to commit even more of my foundation’s resources to this cause. I’m pledging an additional $7 million to meaningful ocean conservation projects over the next two years. But none of this can be implemented without proper worldwide leadership. This is our moment to move forward to protect our oceans, which is our lifeblood. Now, working together, we can create and strengthen existing marine reserves that benefit coastal communities as well as the health of the world’s oceans and their life-giving resources. Through my foundation, I’m committed to funding organizations, communities, and governments that are establishing meaningful marine reserves.

My partners and I, including Oceans 5, Pristine Seas, and Oceana, are prepared to provide significant resources to help design, establish, and implement reserves that are globally real and significant. Two years ago, I learned of an exciting opportunity in Antarctica, a magical place that is home to some of the world’s largest populations of fish, penguins, seals, whales, and seabirds. I learned that many progressive governments were working to create large reserves in the Southern Ocean, and I wanted to help. My foundation became a proud supporter of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, an international coalition of organizations working in partnership with Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, and the United States.

Mr. Secretary, I remain excited and very optimistic about the prospects of a successful outcome. If there’s anything we can do to help, please let us know. I was tremendously thankful for the response of over 1 million people around the world who expressed support for action in Antarctica. My foundation and our partners have also helped protect some of the 100 million sharks who are being killed each year due to overfishing, primarily for their fins.

Last spring, as a result of the efforts of several governments and an array of dedicated organizations, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species approved proposals to protect several vulnerable shark species. It was a great example of success through collaboration, and together, it’s time to create more of these examples on a global scale. We know we cannot do it alone. The only way to address problems of this scale is through smart collaboration between governments, communities, organizations, and scientists.

So I stand here today to challenge all of you to step up, to utilize your positions of authority, to ensure the health of the oceans that are so vital to people’s lives all around the world. Together we can solve this problem, but it will not be easy. It will take courage, sacrifice, and true leadership. As it happens, we have here with us today many of you who have already shown leadership on this issue and are capable of doing much, much more. My ask is straightforward: Step up.

Mr. President, Secretary Kerry, all of you here today, we urge you, we’re imploring you, we’re cheering you on, we’re watching you, and we need you to do the right thing. We’ll be here to support you every step of the way, including right now with our actions in this conference, but you are the leaders we are looking towards to deliver the protection that our oceans deserve and require. We know you will make us proud. Right now we’re launching an ambitious mission to protect the world’s oceans, but we have a long, long road ahead of us. We must push ourselves to step up every chance we can get.

Thank you very much from me, from the wildlife in our ocean that has no voice, from the billions who depend on the abundance that the ocean must continue to provide, and from all of us and from the generations to come whom I hope will experience just as we have the beauty and abundance of our oceans. Thank you.

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