Ambassador Nina Hachigian’s Keynote Address at the Oceans and Fisheries Partnership Inception Workshop

Woman speaking at podium. (Mission Image)Bangkok, Thailand

Thank you to Secretary General of SEAFDEC, Dr. Chumnarn Pongsri, and Deputy Director General of Thailand’s Department of Fisheries, Dr. Waraporn Prompoj, for your welcome remarks and for hosting this important workshop. Thank you to distinguished SEAFDEC Member Country Delegates for your dedication to sustaining Southeast Asia’s valuable oceans and fisheries resources and for traveling to be here.  I am truly grateful for your work.  Thank you to Alfred and the whole USAID team for their hard work. To all esteemed guests and partners joining U.S. here today, we look forward to working with you—we are counting on working with you–as we move forward with this exciting new project.

It is a true honor for me to be among all of you, representing the U.S. Government’s commitment to maintaining safe and sustainable fish stocks and protecting the biodiversity of Southeast Asia’s oceans.  When President Obama appointed me to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I knew that the issues of territorial disputes, food security, and human rights would all feature prominently in my new role.  What I have found during my time in the region, however, is that another serious threat sews a common thread among each of these issues: the degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems due to overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing).

As you well know, Southeast Asia is home to a greater concentration of marine biodiversity than anywhere else in the world.  Nowhere else in the vast oceans on planet earth can you find the epaulette shark – one of the rare “walking” sharks – or the Indonesian coelekanth, practically a living fossil it’s been around on the earth for so long.  The waters in this region support many thousands of fish and invertebrate species that are vital for maintaining healthy ecosystems, and for providing food and livelihoods for millions of people in Asia and around the world.  I got to see some of this marine splendor first hand in Bunaken last week, and it was breathtaking in addition to being so important.  There probably aren’t too many snorkelers at Bunaken who were thinking about land reclamation as they admired the coral, as I was!

As we know this marine bounty, and by extension, the food security of the people of the region, is under siege.  There are many destructive forces—climate change alone is a potent one with its effects on coral.  But IUU fishing has been identified as a leading threat to the health of fish stocks and ecosystems. It is therefore a threat to the security of people who depend on oceans and fisheries for their protein and their jobs.

This is why I am so pleased that the SEAFDEC Secretariat and the SEAFDEC Member Countries are joining forces with the United States to combat IUU fishing, promote food security, and conserve marine biodiversity through this new partnership with USAID. Combatting illegal fishing has become a clear priority for the U.S. Government.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry are both invested, as I am.  I have made marine and maritime issues a top priority at my mission.  Last year, as Alfred mentioned, a Presidential Task Force released recommendations and an action plan.

The U.S. is doing a lot at home to establish a system where we have more control over the safety and legality of imported fish.  But three elements of the plan operate at the international level.  First, the U.S. seeks to strengthen enforcement tools.  Second, we will partner, including with those in this room, to identify and eliminate seafood fraud and the sale of IUU seafood. Third, we will help to create a risk-based traceability program to track seafood from harvest to entry into the U.S. market.  We will work with our foreign partners to strengthen international governance, enhance cooperation, and build capacity to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.

There is a great deal of interest in the region about these issues.  Alfred and I were in Manado last week at the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum where IUU was a major topic of discussion.  And last month at the 22nd ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur, I was very pleased that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers plus those of their 17 partners in the ASEAN Regional Forum adopted the U.S.-sponsored Statement on Strengthened Cooperation on Marine Environmental Protection and Conservation.  I was also privileged to accompany Secretary of State John Kerry at that meeting when he announced the new Oceans and Fisheries Partnership.  And I am delighted to join you today as we kick off the Partnership.

As Secretary Kerry said at the ASEAN Regional Forum, “The catch documentation and traceability system will improve the transparency of Asia’s seafood supply chains, ensuring that fish are legally and sustainably harvested. Traceability is an essential part of our global fight to conserve marine resources and protect the health of our oceans.”  That is because, as you know, if you can’t trace seafood from “bait to plate,” as they say, then the buyers and ultimate consumers can’t be assured of its legal origins.

Large retailers and restaurants in America are starting to pay a lot of attention to their sources of seafood.  So for this region to stay competitive, it will need a system like this. And that one of the reasons why we think that the efforts of the Oceans and Fisheries Partnership will have positive impacts on men, women and communities along the fisheries supply chain, in addition to enhancing food security and economic growth in the region.

The approach to combat IUU fishing must be ambitious, but that only underscores the need for Southeast Asian countries to strengthen their partnerships with each other and with partners such as the United States, Japan, Sweden and others.  Only together can we ensure sustainable fisheries and a future where we can continue to depend on the ocean for food security.  International and regional cooperation are essential; because we cannot convince fish that they should care about territorial boundaries, only regional and international solutions can work.

To put this effort into context, I want to mention two international agreements that can also help address these issues.  First, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is on track to put comprehensive environmental protections in an agreement that involves 40 percent of the world’s trade.  It prohibits the most harmful fisheries subsidies and contains standalone commitments to combat IUU fishing while promoting sustainable fisheries management. Four ASEAN states are in negotiations over this agreement:  Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

Second, the United States is helping to promote the Port State Measures Agreement, an unprecedented agreement to set minimum standards for countries to prevent IUU seafood products from entering their ports. Myanmar has already ratified this treaty and I know a number of other ASEAN Member States are close.  I hope they chose to ratify soon.

For many decades, USAID has already been working with ASEAN Member States on fisheries and marine protected area management, both bilaterally and multilaterally.  We can only succeed if the smart and experienced people of Southeast Asia continue to work with us as part of the Oceans and Fisheries Partnership.  When we designed this program, we did so on the basis of recommendations from ASEAN partners.  Now that we are underway, the Partnership will be looking to you, the experts, for guidance and leadership as we work to achieve our shared vision for sustainable fisheries. Key international and regional fisheries stakeholders from Asia and the Pacific, including those joining U.S. here today, are also critical to ensure the systems the partnership develops are robust and sustainable.

I want to stress that working collaboratively with the private sector will also be critical to success.  Companies along the entire value chain must be engaged as part of the solution from the beginning of this endeavor, and I know that is part of what you all will be discussing in these two days.  Know that the Oceans and Fisheries Partnership will have the full support of the United States Government and will be able to the leverage the strengths of U.S. science agencies, including NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, to achieve its important objectives.

I will close with a big thank you to all of you, because I know that everyone here today is dedicated to the cause.  Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you’ve already done and all that you will do. There will be challenges ahead of all kinds – political challenges, technical challenges, and resource challenges.  But I am very hopeful because the Oceans and Fisheries Partnership is the right collection of experts and enthusiasts, and is in a position to make a real difference for the future of the region.

A 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote some lines I want to end with.   In “Out of the Rolling Oceans—the Crowd,” he wrote:

Return in peace to the ocean, my love;

I too am part of that ocean, my love–we are not so much separated; 

The ocean is what connects us all.  I am proud personally, and on behalf of the United States, to be a part of this new quest, and I wish you a successful two days to set the Partnership in motion.