Conservation and #OurOcean

The Olympics in Brazil might have ended several weeks ago, but over the Labor Day weekend, I joined thousands of the world’s best scientists in Hawaii for the “Olympics of conservation” -– the quadrennial World Conservation Congress. 

In Hawaii, the ocean is ever-present. When you look out the window or over your shoulder you see the water. I grew up in Ohio, where the ocean was hours of driving away. It is understandable how it can be easy to forget the ocean covers 70 percent of our planet while living in the center of a continent. Watching the blue waters from the airplane window as I flew out to Hawaii looking across a seemingly endless ocean, it is hard to imagine that something so large could be so threatened. 

Ocean Policy

Fish stocks have rapidly declined since large-scale commercial fishing began. And we are filling our ocean with trash so quickly that it is estimated by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in it. Compounding these concerns are the impacts of climate change. We see its effect in the shocking photos of bleached corals and damaged shells, and how climate change is threatening both biodiversity and the fishing industry. It is not a theoretical discussion when we talk about the threats facing our ocean and the need to preserve it for the future. It is already clear that the food security of billions of people and the economic livelihoods of millions are at risk. I participated in several panels at the Congress, including two that focused on the “blue economy,” and how we can use the resources of our ocean sustainably. 

We know that if we manage our fish stocks well, keep trash out of the ocean, and take action to reduce the effects of climate change, we can continue to benefit from our ocean for generations. And now we must ensure we make smart, science based decisions to protect our ocean.

Under Secretary Novelli In National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) lobby learning about their research projects at NOAA’s 24/7 Tsunami Watch Center. [State Department Photo]

Ocean Researchers

During my trip, I visited the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island to see their research facilities and meet their scientists. NOAA’s research informs our policy and international negotiations on ocean issues. The organization also provides critical data to individuals making decisions about everything from how to prepare for a hurricane to where to fish sustainably to warnings on incoming tsunamis. When we talk about protecting our ocean, it is important to remember that we still have much to learn about it and commitments to further research are key to generating effective solutions to ocean challenges.

The Next Generation of Ocean Leaders

Under Secretary Novelli meeting with students from the Punahou School at Hanauma Bay State Park. [State Department Photo]

One of the most impactful experiences of my trip to Hawaii was meeting with high school students from the Punahou High School at the Hanauma Bay Education Center, managed by the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant College Program. I wanted to hear from young people who live and breathe the ocean about what it means to them and what they are doing to protect it. 

The students at Punahou are leading beach cleanups, looking to ban single use plastic bottles at their school, and organizing a sustainability fair. They expressed dismay that as hard as they work to protect their ocean much of the plastic they see on beaches in Hawaii does not come from the state. It is clear to them that we need a movement and action from all corners of the globe to stop trash from polluting our waters. President Obama may be one of the most famous graduates of Punahou, but there is no doubt in my mind that the current students will continue his environmental legacy.

The voices of young people can be many times more effective than those of policy makers or scientists because they will inherit the planet we leave them. The projects they are working on are the types of actions that we all need to take and I am proud that these students are already showing leadership to protect and preserve our ocean. 

Our Ocean, One Future

My trip to Hawaii highlighted the importance of science in our policy decisions and the significant role our young people must play if we intend to change how we manage our ocean. As we turn our focus to the Our Ocean Conference on September 15-16, I look forward to seeing big innovative commitments to protect our ocean from governments, civil society, and the private sector. We must take action now so that not only the students I met in Hawaii, but all of us will have a clean blue ocean to share with our children and grandchildren. 

About the Author: Catherine Novelli serves as Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on

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Hanauma Bay State Park in Honolulu, Hawaii. [State Department Photo]
September 12, 2016


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