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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
95/05/25 REMARKS: T. WIRTH ON MARINE POLLUTION
OFFICE FOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS
THE HONORABLE TIMOTHY E. WIRTH
UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS
GLOBAL LEGISLATORS ORGANIZATION FOR A BALANCED ENVIRONMENT
MAY 25, 1995
Thank you, it is a pleasure to be with you today to talk about this
fall's Intergovernmental Conference on Land Based Sources of Marine
Pollution. This conference will continue a long standing tradition of
identifying ocean issues by some of the more obtuse and lengthy -- not
to mention less than thrilling -- titles in international affairs.
Later this year we can also look forward to the UN Conference on Highly
Migratory and Straddling Fish Stocks -- and Senator Kerry is all too
familiar with the U.S.-Canada dispute on whether or not Icelandic Sea
Scallops are sedentary or mobile creatures.
Behind these convoluted conference headings, however, is a piece of some
of the most exciting issues emerging in foreign policy -- issues that
increasingly define the work of parliaments and governments and are ever
more a part of the overriding mission of this and all nations -- cross-
cutting, global issues, which we are confronting in the context of
profound change for our country and the world.
For my generation the East-West confrontation was certainly the
formative experience. It defined who we were as a country, what we
thought was valuable, what we thought was important. For my children
the Cold War is ever more a distant reflection in the rear view mirror.
In its place we face a range of unfamiliar challenges -- diverse and
complicated all: emerging and infectious diseases; rapid population
growth, global climate change and ozone depletion. Taken together,
these global challenges are demonstrating that the community of nations
must work together, that our interests and objectives are overlapping,
that the new era unfolding is characterized by interdependence, not
Few issues highlight the notion of interdependence like protection of
the world's marine environment. The combined forces of population
growth and economic development have placed corresponding pressures on
the world's oceans. The productive and regenerative capacity of the
oceans are increasingly threatened by the introduction of pollutants,
over-utilization of marine resource, habitat destruction and dramatic
In turn, these trends effect a range of interests for all nations -- not
least the United States. The U.S. interest in the marine environment
and high seas is as complex as it is profound:
-- First and foremost, we have a range of well-explored national
security interests related to navigation and passage in the oceans.
-- With one of the longest coastlines in the world, we have basic
resource and environmental interests. In many ways, the health and
well-being of our coastal populations (more than 60 percent of all
Americans) are inextricably linked with the quality of the coastal
-- We have a highly developed and extensive fishing industry, whose
jobs provide livelihoods and whose catch provide food for our people.
-- Beyond fishing, we have critical commercial interests -- ranging
from shipping and transportation to recreation and tourism.
-- We also have cultural interests -- related to coastal communities
and Native Americans.
-- And most broadly, we have transnational environmental interests
related to the diversity of marine biology and the critical role that
oceans play in the functioning of the planet.
Underlying all of these issues is the fact that achievement of oceans
policy objectives requires international cooperation -- at the
bilateral, regional and global level.
Accordingly, the United States has engaged with the international
community in a broad range of cooperative efforts aimed at protecting
the oceans. The problems, like the solutions, transcend the ability of
any one nation to act unilaterally. Our interests are shared by others
-- we are all in this boat together -- the oceans are a primary
illustration of the abstract concept of the global commons.
Over the past several decades, remarkable progress has been made -- from
the difficult negotiation of the Law of the Sea Convention (now amended
to meet our requirements) to the network of international agreements to
prevent pollution from vessels established through the International
Maritime Organization. We have negotiated and amended the London
Dumping Convention and developed a rich fabric of regional mechanisms
for fisheries and pollution.
Despite all of this progress, much more remains to be done, in
particular, to promote more widespread compliance internationally with
the standards and measures set in place by the various agreements to
protect the marine environment.
And overarching all these gaps is the void we have and challenge we face
in combatting ocean pollution that originates on land. Land based
sources include municipal, industrial and agricultural effluents --
which reach the marine environment directly from the coast through
outfalls or through run-off, through rivers or other watercourses, and
via the atmosphere.
All told, these are the source for 70-80 percent of the total pollutant
loading in the marine environment and includes such sources as the vast
volume of coastal sewage which are discharged untreated; the sediments
that wash into the sea from onshore development, logging and
construction; and the nutrients that runoff from fertilizers and
persistent organic compounds from pesticides.
Land-based pollution can cause the decline or total demise of entire
fisheries stocks and the industries based upon them. Pollution also
affects and reduces the habitat available for marine life and lowers
reproductive success. Contamination can shut down entire coastal
fishing areas as we have seen with frequency here in the United States,
where approximately one-fourth of all shellfish beds are closed each
year to avoid public health problems caused by pathogens.
While most nations have recognized the priority of addressing land-based
sources, their complexity, range and intractability has made concerted
effort elusive. Consequently, pollutants from land-base activities have
resulted in major impacts on estuaries and near-shore environments. And
as a growing body of evidence indicates, there are international
problems as well. Pollutants transported by lateral coastal currents
and global circulation patterns have led to transboundary impacts in the
Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of Maine and the Carribean, to name only those
in our own backyard.
The inadequacy of efforts to control and manage land-based sources of
marine pollution was powerfully recognized at the Earth Summit in Rio
three years ago. Chapter 17 of the 500 page action plan known as Agenda
21, called for stepped up efforts to prevent point and non-point sources
and to address the whole range of issues associated with land-based
pollution. And the centerpiece of these efforts
is the convening of the UN conference that we will host later this fall.
The principles outlined in Agenda 21 serve as a model for the approach
that must be set in addressing land-based marine pollution --
emphasizing the balance that must be struck between local interests and
initiatives with broader, more international responsibilities.
We do not pretend the Conference in Washington will find every answer
for every input into the marine environment: That is not realistic.
But, we hope to develop important tools and information sources, so that
information will flow to even the smallest governments, encouraging
action at the national and local level.
We have four specific goals for this November's Conference:
First, we want to develop a methodology that will enable governments and
regional organizations to strengthen efforts to identify approaches and
prioritize actions to deal with land-based activities;
Second, we want to develop a clearinghouse that will link expertise,
programs and resources with identified needs and stated requests;
Third, we hope to reach agreement on policy guidance to guide the
critical activities of the major funding institutions, such as the World
Bank and the Global Environment Facility.
And fourth, we want to continue making progress toward addressing the
troubling issues raised by certain persistent organic pollutants.
I want to take a moment to discuss this issue of persistent organics
because I believe it is emerging as one of the great environmental
challenges the world faces.
Persistent organic pollutants include well-known and obscure substances
such as PCBs; dioxins and furans that are the unintended by-products of
manufacturing and combustion; and a variety of pesticides.
PCBs were used in the past quite extensively in various industrial and
commercial applications, most commonly as a non-conducting fluid in
electrical equipment. Commerical (non-research) production of PCBs has
been virtually eliminated across the globe, but these substances still
present risks resulting from reuse of products and the need to ensure
proper management and disposal of existing stocks.
Dioxins and furans are oft referred to as unintended by-products of
manufacturing and production. They are typically lumped together
because they are generally controlled by the same technology.
Chlorinated pesticides are getting much of the attention in the current
debate about POPs. These pesticides have been extensively analyzed in
the US in terms of risk -- resulting in their virtual elimination due to
their negative effects. Chlorinated pesticides include aldrin,
dieldrin, DDT, endrin, chlordane, mirex, toxaphene, heptachlor.
All of the persistent organics pose a problem because of their
longevity, toxicity, tendency to bioaccumulate and their potential for
long-range transport. Chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides, were first
introduced at the end of WWII precisely because of their persistence --
they offered the potential to keep down agriculture pests for
generations at a time. They were cheap, and initial testing revealed
them to be non-toxic to mammals. In early experiments, prison
volunteers ate spoonfuls of DDT without getting sick.
The acute toxicity of these chemicals in mammals is indeed very low.
Many are suspected carcinogens in lab animals, but have not been shown
to be so in humans. But a feature first noted in birds and more
recently in other species is the effect on hormones, particularly
estrogens. Long term administration of the chlorinated compounds has
feminizing effects not only in male birds, but also in mammals. While
the precise impacts on humans and certain wildlife are not pinned down
with precision, there is no doubt that biopsies of fatty tissues of
humans throughout the world reveal significant deposits of chlorinated
Rachel Carson brought the issue of chlorinated compounds to national
attention with Silent Spring, in which she documented the effects of DDT
on birds. She found that birds, at the high end of the food chain, were
consuming large quantities of DDT and dying off -- dying outright from
overingestion or having trouble maintaining egg quality..
While most of the persistent organic pesticides have been banned in
developed countries, they continue to be used in Africa and India for
the control of malaria -- in view of their availability and the lack of
cheap alternatives. This large-scale use accounts for the dispersion of
chlorinated compounds throughout the world.
Unfortunately, the exact pathways and transport mechanisms for
persistent organics remain uncertain. A growing body of evidence
suggests not only that sources are widely dispersed, but that the
mammalian effects are enormous -- ranging from infertility to
reproductive abnormalities. The key question is whether chlorinated
compounds originating in Africa, for example, are turning up in people
in the Arctic
There is broad agreement, therefore, that we need to gather more
information about costs, production, substitute availability, trade in
POPs, global transport characteristics and use in developing countries.
At the UNEP Governing Council this week, we are seeking to reach
agreement on several concrete steps -- beginning with a call on the
Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety to set up a working group to
assess the threats to human health and the environment posed by POPs,
and ultimately hope that they will develop recommendations for
international actions to be considered in 1997.
In June, Canada will be hosting a technical meeting on POPs in
Vancouver, which will be intended especially to introduce this subject
to experts from developing countries.
To complement and further these efforts, we are anxious to use the LBS
meeting to endorse the efforts underway and to adopt a call for global
action -- bringing attention to the urgency of the POPs problem for the
health of the marine environment, as well as directly and indirectly for
I want to highlight just a couple of other top priorities on the
Administration's oceans agenda -- which are part of and complement our
work on land-based sources.
One is the exciting international consensus we have forged around the
idea of protecting the world's coral reefs. Sometimes referred to as
"the rain forests of the ocean," coral reefs rank among the most
biologically productive and diverse ecosystems. They are an essential
supplier of fish and plant protein to coastal subsistence communities; a
valuable source of revenue for developing countries through exploitation
of reef resources and tourism; a natural barrier which protects land;
and a reservoir of unique biological materials.
To forge international resolve, the United States has assembled an
international partnership -- the International Coral Reef Initiative --
involving Japan, Australia, France, Barbados, a host of other nations
and international institutions like the World Bank. The Coral Reef
Initiative has been successful beyond our wildest dreams and we are
looking forward to launching this initiative in a major way at a meeting
we have organized in the Phillipines next week.
And second, we have placed a priority on addressing the myriad
environmental challenges in the Arctic.
The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, an initiative of the eight
Arctic nations, is now developing recommendations as to the protection
of the Arctic environment, as a whole. To accomplish this, four major
working groups have been established --two of which involve land-based
sources of pollution: (1) one on Arctic Monitoring and Assessment,
which will assess the health and ecological risks associated with
contamination from radioactive waste, heavy metals, persistent organics,
and other contaminants, many of which have a land based origin; and (2)
one on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, which will
examine how land-based sources affect the Arctic marine environment and
recommend ways of addressing such problems.
We look forward to continuing this progress with the help of Senator
Stevens and his colleagues -- who have been terrific supporters of these
efforts and a range of ocean issues, we are proud to work with them.
Land based sources of marine pollution, protection of coral reefs and
attention to the Arctic, these are all pieces of a broad ocean agenda
that we must work together on. Meeting these challenges is in our
interest as Americans and the collective security and cooperation of the
Make no mistake, this agenda is not costless, and certainly not barrier-
free. More optimistically, the question is no longer what to do, the
question is how to facilitate what so clearly needs to be done. Success
would send benefits rippling across both our nations, both our economies
and most important the lives of present and future generations. Our
legacy depends in large measure on our ability to understand and react
to these new challenges. More ominously, the future habitability and
stability of the world is in the balance. In this way, protecting the
globe is a metaphor for the degree to which we recognize the
interdependent nature of the world unfolding before us.
In 1948, when the notion of space exploration was still science fiction,
the Astronomer Fred Hoyle said: "Once a photograph of the Earth, taken
from the outside, is available...a new idea as powerful as any in
history will be let loose.
Twenty years later, when space travel became a reality, the travellers
themselves provided powerful testimony to Hoyle's sense of the unity of
the world. Let me read to you from our own astronaut, James Irwin:
"That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate
that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart."
And now from a Russian cosmonaut: "After an orange cloud -- formed
as a result of a dust storm over the Sahara -- reached the Phillipines
and settled there with rain, I understood that we are all sailing in the
In this last decade of the millennium, we have the power and enormous
responsibility to captain that boat carefully. We also have the ability
to shape change for the benefit of the entire world. The interests and
intellectual capacity reflected in this room today bears a special
burden in this regard. Working together, your talents, your energy and
your power is more than the match for the challenges and the
institutions involved. I hope that each of you will engage in this
effort and that we can harness that energy and wisdom in service of
these objectives. Our future certainly depends on it.
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