American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Report on Oceans and Security Conference

The following report appears as a News Note in the August 1997 issue of Geotimes. It is reprinted here with permission.

The importance of sustainable ocean development in international security and food production drew high-level delegations from around the world to Washington, D.C. last May for an international conference on oceans and security. Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) convened the meeting, which included representatives from over 30 nations. Speakers included Vice President Al Gore, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Secretary of the Navy John Dalton, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Director James Baker, U.S. Geological Survey Director Gordon Eaton, and ministers from 15 countries. The conference was sponsored by the Advisory Committee on the Protection of the Seas, Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment, and the Consortium for Ocean Research and Education.

More than two-thirds of the world's population live within 50 kilometers of the ocean -- a figure that will likely rise to 75 percent by 2020. To increase awareness of the many resources that the ocean supplies, 1998 has been named the Year of the Ocean. The conference was called to bring together international policy-makers, scientists, academicians, and private-sector participants to create an agenda for sustainable ocean maintenance in 1998 and beyond.

In a display of bipartisan support, Gingrich and Gore both spoke on Tuesday, May 20. In his luncheon address, Gingrich emphasized the importance of international collaboration, and expressed his desire for a "real time" information database on oceans. In addition to the Year of the Ocean, he would like to see a Year of the Ecosystem. Gore's remarks at dinner that evening focused on the discoveries made from declassified Cold War information and the importance of developing "environmentally friendly technology." He compared the discovery of life in deep-sea vents to the possibility of life on Mars, and touted the ocean as "the new frontier."

Conference panels focused on four major functions of the ocean: economic security, environmental security, food security, and research and development. Andrew Speer, director of environment at the World Bank, cited the Rio Declaration assertion that economic security and food security are intricately linked -- just as "peace, development, and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible," he added. The global marine fish catch exceeds $70 billion annually and is the primary source of protein for more than 950 million people, he stated. The fish catch is being threatened by over-harvesting, habitat degradation, introduction of alien species, and loss of biodiversity. Speer and other speakers emphasized that action is needed to maintain the food source and, therefore, the economy of many countries. Since tourism is an important contributor to the economic base in areas such as the Caribbean, protecting marine resources is necessary to maintain those sources of income.

Environmental security sessions addressed problems such as water scarcity and pollution. About 20 percent of the world's population live without safe water supplies, due primarily to eutrophication, sewage-related microbial pollution, and chemical pollution. Market failure, human unwillingness to lower consumption, and the impossibility of predicting future trends are primary factors contributing to these problems and preventing cleanup.

Research and development procedures changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War. More and more military data are becoming declassified, providing scientists with new tools and information that had once been off-limits to civilians. This newly available information includes digital bathymetric data -- a worldwide model of water depth, ocean geophysical data, climatology data, and satellite altimetry data from GEOSAT.

International projects, joining together scientists and businesses from many nations, are expanding to create opportunities never before possible. The Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation Program, for example, is a trilateral initiative involving Norway, Russia, and the United States that addresses critical environmental concerns in the Arctic. Rear Admiral Paul Gaffney, Chief of Naval Research, believes this information-sharing program has proven to be a low-cost and highly effective way to build goodwill and strengthen international relations.

Technological advances are also leading to exciting new research capabilities. A reception and tour of the new research vessel, Atlantis, the first ship in the U.S. academic fleet built to conduct manned and unmanned deep-sea exploration (Geotimes, June 1997, p. 7), showed participants the latest developments in ocean exploration.

The conference closed with the unanimous adoption of The Potomac Declaration: Towards Enhanced Ocean Security into the Third Millennium. The declaration recognizes the detrimental forces affecting oceans and provides a guiding set of principles and recommendations for ocean protection. These principles include the use of economic and social incentives to encourage sustainable development, integrated management of coastal and watershed areas, expanded international cooperation, and increased research on marine and coastal ecosystems. To enhance ocean research programs, scientists recommended the creation of a marine environmental monitoring system, using defense and intelligence surveillance systems, and the continuation of efforts to declassify military information.

Rep. Weldon asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson to present the ocean conference's recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly on Environment in late June. While the delegates at the meeting in Washington succeeded in hammering out more than 80 specific recommendations in the Potomac Declaration, the task of developing the operating details still lies ahead. That job will be taken up by another set of conferees who will gather in Stockholm next January to attend "Towards Enhanced Ocean Security into the Third Millennium," a conference that kicks off the Year of the Ocean.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs.
Posted June 26, 1997; Technical update June 17, 1998

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