Assistant Secretary Monica Medina spoke with Andrew Revkin of the New York Times at the 2022 College of the Atlantic Summer Institute “Our One and Only Ocean,” on Thursday, July 28th. A portion of their conversation is shared below. The full interview is available at: https://youtu.be/nE2rdwxBv5M.
Revkin: What drew you to the ocean and to where you are today?
Medina: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia so my connection to the ocean was the family station wagon and the six-hour drive to the Gulf of Mexico for family vacations. What led to where I am now is my first job at NOAA. I was a weather geek when I got there and was drawn into ocean conservation and management.
One of the first issues on which I worked was a call system to alert ships to the presence of north Atlantic right whales. The goal was to avoid ship strikes. Since the International Maritime Organization had to adopt this new system, this went all the way to President Clinton. After many briefings balancing the need for freedom of navigation for ships and the responsibility to protect highly endangered species like the right whale, he ultimately approved the ship reporting system and wrote on the decision memo “I choose the whales.” This was a profound moment for me as a young lawyer.
Revkin: Over the years I’ve become a deep skeptic of top-down approaches to global problems like global warming because the world is so variegated. You are at the State Department negotiating agreements. How do you view where governance needs to go?
Medina: The recent Paris Agreement offers a new, flexible approach, one that is top-down and bottom-up at the same time. It’s a series of nationally developed plans to achieve the global 1.5 degree target. We are beginning negotiations on a similar agreement to address the global plastic pollution crisis. This model gives nations the ability to elevate ambition and achieve as much as we can but does not mandate any single approach. It recognizes that countries may experience a problem in different ways and need different solutions.
Revkin: The industry is much more engaged in the plastic issue than you normally see. Is that what gives this issue more drive?
Medina: There is a huge amount of consensus around the need to address the plastic pollution problem. We are drowning in plastic — we seem to have reached a limit in our ability to take in more plastic. I am hopeful we can find solutions in a more united way.
Revkin: You were recently in Lisbon for the UN Ocean Conference where combatting illegal fishing was one of your priorities. Tell me more about your work here.
Medina: Illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is another one of these global problems we cannot solve alone. One in five fish is believed to be caught illegally, which hurts fishermen and the environment alike. Transparency is one of the most important elements to sustainable fishing, and technology is helping us make better decisions and prioritize action.
In Lisbon, we launched the IUU Alliance with the UK and Canada to raise ambition and action. And we are recruiting more countries to join us. We are calling for greater transparency and traceability, so that vessels are seen on the water. And then we need information sharing in the event vessels are operating illegally. We are trying to get our arms around how to deal with this global problem.
Revkin: What are your priorities for the rest of this year?
Medina: We have several important negotiations underway on plastics, climate, and the oceans. For example, there are negotiations taking place this August in New York on the high seas—the part of the ocean that is outside any one county’s jurisdiction. This is hugely important to being able to create protected areas in the high seas. We want to make more progress on illegal fishing and in our relationship with Pacific Island nations. We are working in Africa to encourage community-based conservation. Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity are preparing for its conference later this year to develop targets to protect and restore biodiversity, including the global goal to protect and conserve 30 percent of the ocean.
While we are speaking this morning, the United Nations is taking up a resolution on whether there is a human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. And I am pleased to say the U.S. will vote to support it. This is a huge step in recognizing how important the environment is to us and the global sense of the challenges face.