August 12, 2005: Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Pew Oceans Commission, discusses the state of the world’s oceans and marine life with guest anchor Carol Marin.
CAROL MARIN: Welcome to WIDE ANGLE, Mr. Panetta.
LEON PANETTA: Nice to be with you.
CAROL MARIN: Before you were the chairman of the Pew Commission on Oceans, before you were Bill Clinton’s Chief -of Staff, before you were in Congress, you were and still are the grandson of a Monterey, California sardine fisherman. When you saw that film, did you see it through that lens?
LEON PANETTA: You can’t help but share the emotion of what that fishing family and that fishing town were going through as they faced the prospect of losing their livelihood. You know, my grandfather used to go out on fishing boats in Monterey when Monterey was the sardine capital of the world. And I think they were catching something like a quarter of a million tons of sardine[s] each year; that’s almost a billion sardines that they were catching each year.
CAROL MARIN: What year was that?
LEON PANETTA: Oh, this would have been in the late ’30s, early ’40s. And it created a whole industry for that town. I mean, people’s jobs were dependent on the fishing business, not only the fishermen, but the canneries that were set up on Cannery Row. John Steinbeck made Cannery Row famous in Monterey. The economy of that town was dependent on the sardine industry. And suddenly, in the late ’40s, the sardines were fished out, they were gone.
And you had a collapse, very similar to what happened in this Scottish community. I mean, they were down 95 percent in their cod and we lost virtually 98 percent of the sardines in Monterey. So the story that happened in Scotland is the same story that happened in Monterey.
CAROL MARIN: In that film, one of the big questions is whether or not there’s a kind of war between the fishermen and the environmentalists, between the fishermen and the government. Is that too simple?
LEON PANETTA: I think you can paint it that way, which is that environmentalists are over here, the fishing families are over here, government’s over here, and none of them are working together. But I think what all of them have to recognize is that we’re dealing with a resource that is in crisis. And that crisis is affecting everyone.
It’s obviously affecting those that care about preserving that great resource that is our ocean. It’s affecting people whose livelihoods depend on that, fishermen, and those related to fishing. Government surely has to have a concern about whether or not this industry continues to exist and whether or not our oceans continue to survive as a resource.
So there’s a common concern here that all of them ought to share. But too often, very frankly, everybody basically worries about their own turf, and they’re not considering the overall concern of what do we do to protect our oceans for the future.
CAROL MARIN: Do you think right now that people in the United States, people in Europe, people in Asia know that there is a crisis in our oceans?
LEON PANETTA: I’m afraid that that message is not getting across. And it’s understandable. Look, the oceans make up 71 percent of the Earth. Some have said that instead of calling this planet Earth, it ought to be called Oceans, because so much of it is oceans. It’s so large, and people to a large extent take it for granted that the oceans can kind of take care of themselves — it’s a big ocean. And you can’t see what’s happening below the surface of that ocean and the losses that are taking place in terms of our fisheries and the very lifeblood that is so important to our oceans. So the result is that most people kind of take it for granted. And I think we pay a price for that as a result.
CAROL MARIN: Someone suggested that if you tried to picture what happens in the oceans in those many mile-long nets, if you try to transplant that image onto the earth, if you take it into the savannahs of Africa and scraped along, that you would pull up every tree, every bush, every cougar, every panther, every elephant. And that would be the same as what’s happening beneath the water.
LEON PANETTA: That’s exactly what’s happening. And the problem is when we saw it on land, when we cut forests down, when we destroyed the land, you could see what was happening, you could see the damage to wildlife, you could see the damage that was taking place to that resource. And we responded, I mean this nation responded. Teddy Roosevelt responded and said, “Look, we’ve got to do something to protect these national treasures that we have, that ought to be protected for the future.”
A hundred years later, the same thing’s happening to our oceans. I mean, we are literally losing our fisheries — 90 percent of the large fish in the ocean are gone. Some have described this as the last buffalo hunt going on, with regards to our oceans.
CAROL MARIN: Say that one more time, 90 —
LEON PANETTA: Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans — by the large fish I mean tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks — are gone. They’re gone. Science now is confirming that we’ve got a real crisis on our hands. There was a recent report that came out that said the diversity of our fisheries is — we’re losing it. Instead of going out and catching 10 varieties of fish, we’re now down to five. So that we’re losing our fisheries, we’re losing that great resource that was the very livelihood for that fishing family that we just saw.
CAROL MARIN: The film showed us what’s happening in Europe. Is the same thing that’s happening in Europe happening here?
LEON PANETTA: Absolutely. We have had two commissions now dealing with the oceans. One was the one I chaired, the Pew Oceans Commission. We also had a U.S. Commission that looked at the issues involved with our oceans. And these were very different commissions, very diverse in terms of their membership, and yet both commissions came to the same conclusion, which is that our oceans are in crisis. We’re losing our fisheries, pollution is taking place along our coast. Two thirds of the waters along our coast now are being degraded, as a result of pollution. We’re seeing dead zones the size of the state of Massachusetts appearing in the Gulf of Mexico; dead zones, largely due to pollution.
We’re seeing overdevelopment along our coasts. Fifty-four percent of our population lives on 17 percent of the land. So it’s impacting on the wetlands and the nurseries for our fisheries. And lastly, governance of our oceans is a disaster. We’ve got 140 laws, 60 committees; there’s very little coordination in terms of implementing the laws that have to deal with our oceans. And so federal courts usually wind up having to deal with disputes. It’s a bad way to govern. So all of that contributes to a real crisis in our oceans.
CAROL MARIN: How much time do we have?
LEON PANETTA: I think that the good news is that we can turn it around. The bad news is that if we allow what’s going on in the oceans to continue, there will be a point at which we will lose those resources that live within the ocean. I mean, we have seen, for example, like the Black Sea, as a result of ballast systems discharging a jellyfish that was non-native to the Black Sea, it virtually destroyed all of the fisheries in the Black Sea.
That same thing can take place in our oceans. We’re seeing that begin to happen. We can turn it around, we can restore these resources, but it’s going to take leadership to do it. And right now, very frankly, that leadership is not there.
CAROL MARIN: So where does it come from, where do we get it?
LEON PANETTA: Well, I’ve often said that we govern either by leadership or crisis. Leadership looks ahead and says, “We’ve got to preserve and protect this resource for the future, for our children and their children.” If that leadership isn’t there, make no mistake about it, crisis will happen. And we’ve seen that happen, we’ve seen it happen with these fisheries. We’ve lost the cod population, we’ve lost the sardine population, we’re losing 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean. We are seeing something like 18,000 beaches closed each year because of pollution.
CAROL MARIN: We’re talking about U.S. beaches now?
LEON PANETTA: This is U.S. beaches. And the same kind of crisis is beginning to appear in other parts of the world, as this documentary has pointed out. So the crisis is there; now what we have to do is translate it in a way that people understand, that our very lives are related to what happens in the ocean, our health care, our nutrition, our economy, our recreation, our very lifeblood.
CAROL MARIN: Do you believe that the current administration or the current Congress sees it the way you see it?
LEON PANETTA: You know, there are those members who deeply believe that this is something that we have to pay attention to. But I have to tell you, in today’s world there is just not enough attention to the problems that are taking place in our oceans. As far as a priority, when you’re looking at Iraq and our economy, and the price of oil and all the other problems that we’re confronting, I’m afraid the problems facing our oceans are coming in near the bottom.
CAROL MARIN: And when you look at the EU right now trying to do what it can. … The United States has its own crisis and Asia, where a huge amount of the ungoverned fishing is going on, really doesn’t see it the same way. So even if we address it in the United States, does that do anything to fix it?
LEON PANETTA: Well, if we as a nation would take steps to first of all make the point that our oceans are a national trust — we did that in regards to our land. We don’t even have a comprehensive law, at the federal level, that says the oceans are a national trust and ought to be protected. We ought to make that commitment. We ought to develop fisheries policy that sustains fisheries for the future, so that we can rebuild those fisheries for families in the future.
We ought to deal with pollution, we ought to deal with governance and try to coordinate those policies. If we do that, then the United States, with a degree of credibility, can go to the rest of the world and say, “We’ve all got to do this.” Because oceans know no boundaries, it’s not enough for the United States to take those steps. I mean, sharks and marlin don’t understand national boundaries. We need to deal with this as a world community, dealing with our oceans. That’s the ultimate hope, that everyone will recognize that this is a crisis that has to be dealt with.
CAROL MARIN: But in these environmental concerns, disputes, crises, I think of global warming — we don’t have a national consensus on global warming. And there’s been much more discussion of that, it seems to me, than the oceans. Am I right?
LEON PANETTA: Well, there’s no question that global warming is a problem that we now look at and say, “My God, the science is real here. We’ve got a real problem here, the Earth is warming.” The ice in the Arctic is melting, we’re seeing climate changes, we’re seeing weather changes that we’ve never seen before. And yet there’s a resistance to confronting those issues. And the same thing is true for the ocean.
I mean, science agrees that we’ve got a real crisis here. Two commissions have confirmed we’ve got a real crisis here. And yet there’s a sense that well, we really don’t have to make the changes that have to be made right now. It’s not that serious. And so I guess what I’m saying to you is that right now our approach to dealing with the ocean is, we’ll wait for the crisis to get worse.
CAROL MARIN: For a lot of people in the United States, they still can go to the grocery store and buy the fish of their choice, the price is still pretty good. The crisis doesn’t seem to reach the grocery store or the American home. Why not?
LEON PANETTA: We have to make clear to the people that go to the grocery store and buy their fish there, that there will come a time when they will not be able to buy great wild fish that they currently can get. I mean, there’s going to be a time at which, you know, we may raise these fish in aquaculture or in tanks, but we will lose our wild fisheries. I mean, in a very real sense, this is the last buffalo hunt, and we are losing our wild fisheries. Now that’s number one.
Number two, if we don’t pay attention to the ocean and the pollution of the oceans, it’s going to affect not only our nutrition and our ability to get fish, it’s going to affect our health. I mean, we’re already seeing that with regards to some fisheries, that because of lead poisoning, because of other poisonings that are taking place, you can’t buy those fish. So it’s going to affect our health.
Thirdly, it’s going to affect our climate. You know, we’re seeing those climate changes take place now. And that affects everybody in this country. It’s going to affect our recreation. It’s going to affect our economy. You saw what it’s doing to that little community in Scotland; you can imagine our coastal communities, if we lose the fishermen, if we lose the economic base, it’s going to affect the economy in this country. $117 billion flows into our economy because of our fisheries.
CAROL MARIN: So do we in the United States start decommissioning vessels the way they did in Scotland?
LEON PANETTA: Well, we’ve already done some of that. When the cod industry went down in New England, we started buying the fishing boats in New England. It’s a bad way to deal with it, very frankly.
CAROL MARIN: It didn’t make a difference, did it?
LEON PANETTA: Well, [it] not only doesn’t make a difference, because the reality is that the fishermen who are then left — they buy bigger ships, they buy more technology and they basically go out and still go after the fish in the oceans. And then the small family is the one who basically gets hurt in that process. And that’s what happened here to this family, is their boat’s going to be scrapped, but make no mistake about it, there’ll be others, bigger ships that’ll take their place and we’ll still have the same problem with regards to the lost fisheries.
CAROL MARIN: Can you actually take part of the ocean and turn it into Teddy Roosevelt policy and Yellowstone?
LEON PANETTA: I think that’s the key. The key is to recognize that we have to go establish areas where the fish can replenish themselves, the same as we did with the buffalo, the same as what we’ve done with other endangered species. We’ve got to give them the time to be able to replenish themselves.
CAROL MARIN: Safety zones.
LEON PANETTA: We’ve got to create reserves, we’ve got to create sanctuaries, we’ve got to create areas where we can limit fisheries in some way. And we have to do this in conjunction with the fishermen; I mean, it’s in their interest to do that. If they want their children to be fishermen for the future, the best investment is to ensure that that fishery is there. We don’t develop policy, very frankly, that sustains the fishery for the future. Our approach to fisheries right now is single species. We deal with one species; if it’s in trouble, they go over and fish the rest of the other fisheries that are out there.
CAROL MARIN: You mean go save the salmon, but you ignore the flounder?
LEON PANETTA: That’s right.
CAROL MARIN: One of the questions that seems to keep popping up is, does the fisherman have a place in this policy conversation? Because they, the fishermen, don’t seem to feel like they’re part of the solution, or heard in the conversation. Are they wrong about that?
LEON PANETTA: I don’t think they’re wrong about that, to be truthful. I mean, I think fishermen have to be at the table. This is their livelihood, they know the fisheries. And I’m a believer that very frankly, they’ve got to be sitting at the table as you develop policy, because they have to be part of that process.
I remember when I was in the Congress, I was working on legislation to establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary — to try to protect that area of the coast from offshore drilling, and from other problems that might affect it. In order to get that done, I had to have fishermen sitting at the table. I had fishermen, I had farmers, I had environmentalists, I had businesspeople, chamber of commerce, I had them all at the table. As a result, they came to an agreement that this was important to do. I think the same approach needs to take place when it comes to policies involved with fisheries: you’ve got to have them at the table. They’ve got to have a stake in it, and there’s nobody that has a bigger stake in it than the fishermen and their families.
CAROL MARIN: But somewhere along the line, the governments of these nations have got to understand that it’s an emergency, correct?
LEON PANETTA: Absolutely.
CAROL MARIN: And they don’t, do they?
LEON PANETTA: No, what they’ve got to do is they’ve got to say, “We have got to come to the table, and we have got to take steps to ensure that we are going to restore these fisheries.” And they aren’t there yet. For them this is still kind of the same old political issue — you don’t want to step on people’s toes, you don’t want to offend certain constituencies. And so they are tiptoeing past the graveyard, as they say.
CAROL MARIN: You’ve had years of experience in politics on all sorts of levels. If you can’t get their attention, if your commissions can’t get their attention, then what hope do you have that someone else can?
LEON PANETTA: Well, you just can’t stop. I mean, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in politics, it’s that persistence pays off. And you’ve got to keep saying that this is a problem. You’ve got to keep making sure that the public understands that this is a crisis. You cannot walk away from this and just give up, because it’s too important. If anything, you’ve got to be able to say, “Look, 100 years ago, when Teddy Roosevelt decided that it was important for the country to protect our land, we did it, and we created Yellowstone and Yosemite and the other national parks that became something that we all treasure as a result of that. One hundred years later, we face the same kind of problems with our oceans. And Mr. President, you want to become Teddy Roosevelt, this is a place where you can become Teddy Roosevelt. You can have this country implement steps to protect our oceans for the future. And 100 years from now they’ll remember that we cared about doing something about our oceans.”
CAROL MARIN: As head of the Pew Oceans Commission, you traveled the country, you talked to all kinds of people. What most impressed you or surprised you in your dealings with people in this?
LEON PANETTA: You know, I think one of the surprises really was that the fishermen themselves, and their families, just like the two women that were out fighting to try to deal with this problem in the film, they came out and they were testifying. We had hearings at which groups of families and fishermen came there and said, “The fisheries are being hurt, we’re not making a living anymore as we used to. Our families are being affected by this. Do something, do something to restore the fisheries.”
I mean, what really surprised me is that fishermen and their families were so concerned and were there. And if that’s happening, it tells you that the crisis is real. And that more then anything impacted, I think, our entire commission because you got a sense of the human side of this equation. I mean, you can deal with the fisheries and you see what’s happening, understand the ocean, but here, this is what’s happening on land and to people and their families. And that human element is, I think, a key to trying to make people aware that this is a real crisis.
CAROL MARIN: Did you encounter some real misconceptions about the oceans?
LEON PANETTA: A lot of misconceptions. You know, as I said, the biggest misconception of all is that, oh my goodness, it’s such a big ocean, there’s so much water out there, surely it could take care of itself. Surely it doesn’t matter if a cruise ship discharges some waste into the ocean. Surely it doesn’t matter if a little pollution goes into the ocean. Surely it doesn’t matter if we lose maybe a little bit of a fishery, it can restore itself. I mean, it’s that kind of attitude that I think is the greatest concern — that somehow it could take care of itself.
And don’t forget, I mean, you’ve got a lot of people in this country that don’t necessarily live near the coast. That’s true for the world. And for them it is just a trip to the local market to get a fish. And they don’t see the larger picture that’s involved with regards to that resource.
CAROL MARIN: If decommissioning boats isn’t the answer, what is?
LEON PANETTA: The answer to dealing with this issue is to restore the fisheries, it isn’t to basically say, “We’re going to shut down that industry,” or “We’re going to move it to the big boys,” so that the big ships are going to be the only ones that operate with regards to the fishing business. The answer here is to restore the fisheries, to make them sustainable.
Let me give you an example. The lobster industry off of Maine is one of the great examples of a sustainable fishery. Why? Because they are all working together. They’ve established limits, they throw back lobsters that aren’t a particular size. They keep female lobsters and throw them back as well, because they want to sustain the lobster population. They have strict requirements on how they operate, because they know that if they don’t sustain that fishery, they’re all going to be out of business.
CAROL MARIN: What you’re saying is they have a plan.
LEON PANETTA: Absolutely, and that’s what we need to do with regards to fisheries in general. We’ve got to have a plan, and we’ve got to have the willingness to put it in place and make it work.
CAROL MARIN: Do you, in your own mind, have a clear understanding of how it got this bad?
LEON PANETTA: I think, like a lot of other things, there are a lot of factors that feed into this. But I think probably the worst thing of all is that we all took the resources of our oceans for granted. Fishermen, families, the economy, people who enjoy eating fish — all of us have taken it for granted. People who go to the beach, people who enjoy our coastal recreation, we have all taken it for granted, and we’re now paying the price for that.
CAROL MARIN: Today, versus, say, 50 years ago, what’s the difference in the fishing industry in the United States?
LEON PANETTA: I think we have just a very small fraction of the industry from 50 years ago — the Montereys of the world, and the sardine industries. They were out there, they were fishing, they thought there was no limit to the resource, they thought that they would be able to catch a quarter of a million tons of sardines forever. And they found out that the resource had limits. And so 50 years ago I think there was a sense, this is a limitless resource, we can do this forever, we don’t have to take steps to make sure it’s replenished. I think 50 years later, particularly the families involved with fishing and particularly the communities involved with fishing know that that’s not the case.
CAROL MARIN: You don’t see this as a crisis, you see this as an emergency.
LEON PANETTA: I do, because I don’t think we can simply yawn and say, “You know, at some point this’ll cure itself.” I think if it keeps heading in the direction it’s going, we are seeing a situation where the richest resource we have in the world, in terms of our oceans, the wildlife that’s in our oceans, the sea life, the dynamic relationship between the different living things that are part of our ocean, we’re going to see the end of that. We’re going to see the end of that. We’re beginning to see that happen with regards to some fisheries.
CAROL MARIN: I found it staggering to read that we have only charted about 5 percent of our oceans. That we know more about outer space, of which we never feel we know enough, than we know about our oceans.
LEON PANETTA: Well, let me tell you, that’s a real concern, because one of the things we looked at is if we’re going to deal with this, you’ve got to have education, you’ve got to have research, you’ve got to have the science you need in order to provide the answers that are important. This country, with regards to our oceans — and our oceans that are part of our territories are larger then our land mass — and yet when you look at our research budget, less than 4 percent goes to looking at the science of our oceans. Less than 4 percent. If we could spend billions searching for life in other planets, surely we could spend more trying to look at what’s happening to life here on this planet. And that simply is not the case right now.
CAROL MARIN: That Scottish family that saw its boat ripped to pieces didn’t have an economic alternative. There wasn’t retraining or retooling. And to the best of our knowledge, they’re back on somebody else’s boat today. Isn’t another part of this discussion that somehow we have to economically deal with the retraining, retooling of the fishermen who we’re taking out of the fisheries?
LEON PANETTA: I’m always disappointed at the way we deal with these kinds of crises. When jobs go away because of trade, or jobs go to India or China or what have you, we somehow don’t respond by saying, “Wait a minute, we’ve got to take people who now have lost their jobs and retrain them and provide the skill training and provide the kind of multitude of abilities that we need in today’s modern economy.” This is a globalized world. We’ve got to do that.
The same thing is true in the fishing industry. I mean, if we’re going to restore the fisheries, we’re going to have to sustain these families in a way that allows them to make this transition. So we’re going have to give them training, we’re going to have to give them a support system that allows them to make that transition at the same time [as] we’re restoring that resource. If we could develop the same kind of pattern that the New England lobster people have approached their resources with, the reality is that there will be a continuing resource that will allow their children and their children’s children to be able to be fishermen. And I think that’s the goal here.
CAROL MARIN: What fuels your passion on this? Is it that you’re the grandson of a fisherman?
LEON PANETTA: I was born and raised in Monterey. I was born near the coastline. And the ocean is very much a part of our whole lifeblood. It was when I was a kid, and it still is. I mean, the community that I live in relies on the ocean for its beauty, for what it does to our spirit. I think it was John Kennedy who said that “Our oceans are the salt in our veins,” and I believe that.
CAROL MARIN: Do you feel as though you’re crying into the wind, that no one’s listening?
LEON PANETTA: I’ve been around politics enough that I know that if you keep saying it enough, and if the facts support what you’re saying, as they do, that at some point there will be those who listen. If for no other reason but that the people of this country will recognize that crisis alone can’t determine the future of what happens with our oceans.
CAROL MARIN: Marine reserves are a great idea, but how realistic are they? How likely [is it that you] are going to be able to get them done?
LEON PANETTA: Well, it’s a tough challenge, there’s no question about it. But states like California, for example, are now in the process of developing reserves along the coast. And the way you’ve got to do it is, as I’ve said, you’ve got to have fishermen involved in the process. The science now is beginning to clearly show that where you have some of these reserves established, that there are in fact fish that are being replenished, and we are seeing stocks beginning to become healthy again as a result.
CAROL MARIN: But if the California guys are doing it, but Portland up the coast isn’t, does it matter what’s going on in California?
LEON PANETTA: You’ve got to start someplace. You’ve got to start someplace, and you’ve got to be able then to show others what the consequences are. I mean, right now, there are a lot of people that say, “We don’t believe this really works.” Well, you’ve got to prove to them that it does work. And so the only way to do that is to in fact implement some of the pilot projects that we have going on. We have some reserves, we’re getting some information from them, we’re trying to establish others. I think ultimately as long as fishermen feel like they’re part of the process, they understand that you have got to be able to protect the nurseries for the fisheries.
CAROL MARIN: But those same fisheries are the guys that are making bigger and bigger boats, using more and more sophisticated technology — sonar. … I mean, they’re scooping up whole sections of the ocean. So don’t they fight you at the same time that they argue there’s a need?
LEON PANETTA: Well, the big boys, as they say, are always going to put up a fight because they can always afford to go out and buy bigger ships and greater technologies and implement those. But it really is the kind of working-family fishermen that we saw in this film that we have to focus on. These are the middle-income fishermen who have small boats, who really go out on a day-to-day basis and really try to use the methods that — in most instances — their fathers used and their fathers’ fathers used.
Now, there is this new technology, there are real problems with some of these big ships. These ships are very sophisticated. If you look at other countries in the world, they’re developing ships that are literally factory ships. They have sonar to determine where the school[s] of fish are, they have these huge nets that can basically go down and scrape the bottom of the ocean.
CAROL MARIN: They’re staggering nets. I mean, they go —
LEON PANETTA: Oh, they’re huge.
CAROL MARIN: What, three, four, five miles?
LEON PANETTA: They can go as far as eight miles in some instances. These nets are huge. And they can gather up all kinds of fish. I mean, one of the problems we’re having with the lost fisheries is this huge by-catch, in which we’re catching all kinds of fishes that simply die as a result of being scooped up by these large nets. Look, technology is going to develop, but we have to develop some limits, we have to develop some controls on this so that we in fact can limit the by-catch. So we can limit the amount of destruction that’s going on with regards to the bottom of the sea. I think ultimately if fishermen understand that they’re going to lose their ability to have a livelihood, then they’ve got to feel that they have to make an investment in what we do to try to take care of this.
CAROL MARIN: But if we as citizens of the world, whether it’s the United States or the European Union or Asia, aren’t excited about it, aren’t particularly interested in it, don’t even know it’s a crisis, does it really matter what the fishermen think, because we’re not engaged in this conversation?
LEON PANETTA: What I have always found in politics is that if you think your survival in office is dependent on dealing with a particular problem, then you will move. And I think what these two women, the Cod Crusaders, are doing is very similar to what I saw New England fishermen do and what I’ve seen other fishermen do, which is they go to their representatives and say, “If you aren’t taking steps here, we’re going to vote against you. We’re going to kick you out of office.” And I think that’s the kind of message that people have to hear.
CAROL MARIN: So people have to scare their representatives?
LEON PANETTA: That’s right, that’s exactly right. We’ve got to be able to say to them, “This is important enough that if you don’t deal with this issue, frankly it’s going to cost you my vote.”
CAROL MARIN: You’ve had experience with two different commissions. You’re not a shrinking violet — you’ve been calling out about this. The weight seems to be against you, not for you on this.
LEON PANETTA: What I’ve always discovered is that at some point, in some presidential race, in some race for high office — whether it’s here or in other parts of the world — there is someone who basically says, “This is a problem that is not being dealt with. This is a crisis and I’m going to deal with it.”
CAROL MARIN: Makes it an election issue.
LEON PANETTA: Makes it an issue. And as a result, then, if elected, gets a license from the people to do something about the problem.
CAROL MARIN: Hot spots in the United States. If we’ve got trouble here, where would you identify those hot spots?
LEON PANETTA: Well, there are hot spots all along our coastline that we’ve got to pay attention to. Clearly New England. We’ve already seen the loss, really, of the cod industry. There are recent studies that say it is not coming back. And there have been efforts to try and replenish it. I mean, the North Bank, which is one of the great fishing grounds of the world really, is now depleted of the cod fisheries, so there’s a real problem in that part of the world.
There’s a problem with regards to what are called the snappers and groundfish, particularly off of the Florida coastline, the Carolinas. The shrimp fisherman in the gulf themselves are concerned about whether or not they’re going to be able to maintain their livelihood. And we’ll see on the West Coast. We’ve just had restrictions on salmon fisheries that have taken place, even off of our coastline in Monterey. There are restrictions that are now holding the fishermen or limiting the fishermen in that fishery because of endangerment.
And up in the Northwest, I mean, the last frontier of fishing is Alaska. And we’ve seen some of the impacts there because — particularly because of global warming. But that’s actually a great example of where the fishermen and the scientists and the community and the state have said, “This is a vital economic resource for our state. We depend on it.” And as a result, they’re taking steps to try to restore their key fisheries. Other parts of the country ought to look to Alaska as an example of some of the steps you have to take to do it.
CAROL MARIN: Global hot spots, if you’re going to pick true problem areas in the world, where are they?
LEON PANETTA: The hot spots we’re seeing now are in the North Atlantic because we’re seeing herring and cod fisheries being affected there. We’re seeing — because of this figure I gave you, that 90 percent of the big fish are being fished out, what are called the long-line fishermen are being affected by that, particularly in areas of the Pacific. And part of the problem there is with some of the remaining fisheries that are out there, particularly in the Southeast Pacific. These are the last places that fishermen are going to, because the last resource is there. And if we don’t take steps to protect that resource, it’s going to be impacted like other areas. So areas of the Pacific — China, which also depends on fisheries, they’re losing their fisheries. They’re going to invest —
CAROL MARIN: When you say “losing,” do you mean losing as if you’re not going to ever get them back?
LEON PANETTA: Well, what’s happening is they’re just simply not catching the fish that they used to catch. Their fisheries have been diminished.
CAROL MARIN: But at some point it goes dead, doesn’t it?
LEON PANETTA: Well, of course it does, if they keep doing it. And for that reason, they’ve decided to invest a billion dollars in aquaculture, which means creating the artificial tanks in order to raise fish in an artificial setting.
CAROL MARIN: Which you don’t see as a solution.
LEON PANETTA: Well, I don’t see that as an ultimate solution, because then you’re basically saying to hell with the wild fisheries.
CAROL MARIN: And to hell with the ocean.
LEON PANETTA: Exactly. And that’s what bothers me, is you can’t just simply say, “Well, since that resource is gone to hell, why don’t we just create our own artificial resource?” with regards to aquaculture.
CAROL MARIN: Could I argue that China’s at least doing something and we’re not?
LEON PANETTA: Well, aquaculture as an industry is not going away. But for goodness’ sake, it ought not to replace the wild fisheries in the fishing industry that I think has been so much a part of our heritage and our economy.
CAROL MARIN: What will the future look like if we don’t do anything?
LEON PANETTA: I think there will come a time when, if we just simply don’t pay attention … First of all, with regards to fisheries, I think there will be a point at which our wild fisheries will be gone. I really do think that if we[‘ve] lost 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean, it’s not going to take much longer for that remaining 10 percent to be gone. Secondly, I think that it will affect — because of continuing pollution that affects our coastline — it’ll affect our recreational areas.
CAROL MARIN: To be clear, when you’re talking about pollution and the coastline, you’re talking in part, aren’t you, about fuel or oil by-products that our rain washes into the ocean? It’s like the EXXON VALDEZ —
LEON PANETTA: Let me give you a great figure. Right now, every eight months, 10.8 million gallons of oil — it’s the amount of the VALDEZ spill — washes into our coastal waters, because of runoff from streets and from other areas. Ten point eight million gallons of oil that goes into our sea. And it clearly affects the environment of our oceans as a result of that.
CAROL MARIN: It’s almost too much, in a way, for people to imagine, isn’t it? To be able to see it in your mind’s eye, to be able to picture what’s below that water level, or what’s washing in. I mean, we don’t have much imagination about this.
LEON PANETTA: And that’s a problem. I think what you have to do is say to people, “This is the equivalent of the EXXON VALDEZ spill,” which I think most people saw and saw the consequences of. … It’s the equivalent of that washing off into our waters every eight months.
CAROL MARIN: What I see you do in this interview is you’re constantly trying to frame it, aren’t you? You’re trying to constantly create a word picture for people to see just how bad it is.
LEON PANETTA: Well, most people in their day-to-day lives, as I said, they kind of take our oceans for granted. You have got to make them aware of the fact that one of the great vital resources of our planet is in danger, and it could affect them. You’ve got to make the crisis relate to their lives in some way — that it is going to affect their health, that it is going to affect their nutrition, that it is going to affect their recreation, that it is going to affect their economy. You’ve got to make them aware that this is not a crisis that you can simply walk away from.
CAROL MARIN: But you know people, Americans, Europeans, Asians are warned every day, 10 times a day, about cancer, nuclear threat, terrorism, global warming. You just added another one to the list, and at some point I think you’re fighting against people’s ability to absorb it.
LEON PANETTA: People who are elected to office, whether it’s in this country or anyplace else in the world, the reason they’re elected to office is to exercise a responsibility to ensure that the future of our children is better. I mean, my parents were immigrants to the country. When I used to ask my father why he came to this country, he said, “The reason your mother and I came is because we thought we could give our children a better life.” I think giving our children a better life is what everybody in this country, including our politicians, are supposed to do. This is an example where if you simply ignore what happens to our oceans, you are creating a future that is going to hurt our children and their children.
CAROL MARIN: On a scale of one to 10, Mr. Panetta, where are you, optimism versus pessimism, on getting this done, and getting it done soon?
LEON PANETTA: I’m always at five with regards to most things, because I think you can’t feel like it is just impossible. I think the facts are here, the science is here, the studies are here, we’re seeing the consequences of it. I think if we keep preaching that this is a crisis that can’t be ignored, that at some point that message will be heard.
CAROL MARIN: Give us a little tutorial on what aquaculture is. Just exactly what is it, and how realistic is it?
LEON PANETTA: Well, aquaculture is basically an artificial way to produce fisheries. And we see a lot of it; it’s happening with oysters. In the Monterey area we used to have abalone, and now what they do is they essentially have tanks that are placed in the ocean that produce these abalone on an artificial basis. They feed them and they grow them. Same thing is true, as I said, for oysters; same thing is true for salmon. They create areas that now are essentially tanks in the ocean, where they raise salmon.
And one of the dangers that has developed is that those salmon then escape, and then essentially contaminate the wild fishery salmon. We’ve had consequences of that. Secondly, the amount of feed that’s used for aquaculture actually can in fact impact on the oceans as well, because they’ve got to create all of these aquaculture facilities. So the problem is it is an industry that is growing, because of what’s happening with wild fisheries. But we clearly have got to place some standards as to how they operate that will ensure that they don’t do damage to the wild fisheries.
CAROL MARIN: They’re sort of the equivalent, in fresh water terms, of catfish farms, right?
LEON PANETTA: Yes, exactly. I mean, catfish farms are a form of aquaculture. And it’s not an industry that’s going to go away, in large measure because of what’s happening to the wild fisheries. But it is an industry that has to act responsibly, because there are dangers that could take place, that can affect the wild fisheries as a result of what they do. And the worst thing that could happen is to simply have them go ahead and do whatever they do on an artificial basis, and then contribute to the loss of the wild fisheries as a result of that.
CAROL MARIN: You seem to be arguing that it’s really an artificial way to deal with a crucial natural problem, and you don’t like it.
LEON PANETTA: It’s an artificial way to deal with it, and I guess what I’m saying is I would — at the same time that we have aquaculture — I want this country to focus, and the world to focus on how do we restore those great wild fisheries that are really the heart and soul of what we’ve always considered the fishing industry in the world.
CAROL MARIN: Do you have a blueprint of your own about how this problem could be solved?
LEON PANETTA: Well, I think both commissions made recommendations that I think policy makers have to pay attention to. The first is we need to make that overall commitment to protecting our ocean as a resource. That’s important, because you have to have that as a beginning.
Secondly, you’ve got to better coordinate policy in governing our oceans. Right now there isn’t effective coordination of those policies. We’ve got to be able to do it better, we’ve got to have coordinated policy at the federal level. We’ve got to have kind of what I would call regional policy that brings together federal, state, and local government as well as fishermen to ensure that we protect our local fisheries as well.
Thirdly, we’ve got to develop a sustainable fisheries policy. When I say that, what I’m saying is don’t manage on a species-by-species basis, manage on a basis that considers all of the fisheries and ensures that they all can restore themselves.
CAROL MARIN: Think globally?
LEON PANETTA: Exactly. Don’t put science and the decision as to how we allocate our fisheries in the same room, because the problem is, science always loses out. I mean, science ought to say, “This is what the level of the fisheries is,” and then you make decisions, based on what science says, and in the allocation side. You’ve got to separate those two, and right now, unfortunately, the science and fishermen are in the same room, and the science usually loses out.
You’ve got to be able to ensure that we take steps to implement some of these efforts to restore the fisheries, like reserves, like sanctuaries and other steps that give some of these nurseries for our fisheries a chance to restore themselves. In addition, you need to establish better control over pollution. We’ve got to strengthen our water pollution laws, we’ve got to strengthen laws with regards to cruise ships so that they can’t simply discharge. Some states have already taken actions to do that, but we haven’t done enough. Lastly, we’ve got to ensure that, for example, the kind of runoff that goes down the Mississippi that creates these dead zones, that we try to limit that kind of what are called indirect pollution sources.
CAROL MARIN: Do you have in your own mind’s eye an idea of who coordinates all of this, how that gets done? I mean, is there a sort of UN solution, or an international commission?
LEON PANETTA: Well, I think these steps that I talked about are not just steps that apply to the United States, they apply to the world community as well. And what has to be done is that the world community has to ensure that each of these nations [is] implementing common policies here, common standards that will ensure that the world fishery comes into place. Which means we’ve got to be able to have the United Nations create the kind of vehicles that allow us to be able to govern and manage our ocean fisheries with the same goals in mind — restoring our fisheries, better managing them, better coordinating policy, and better ensuring that all of the world’s countries are abiding by the same rules.
CAROL MARIN: Are you far away from all of that?
LEON PANETTA: We’re a long way from doing that, but if the world community understands the level of crisis that is here, just as I think the world community is beginning to recognize what’s happening with global warming and the fact that you can’t just walk away from that …
CAROL MARIN: So who kicks off the discussion? Is it President Bush here, is it the EU, is it the UN, where does it start?
LEON PANETTA: The answer’s yes. I think you’ve got to have everybody being able to move on this, because it is a crisis. And it demands the UN, it demands world leaders, it demands that when the world community meets — whether it’s in Africa or South America — and talks about environmental challenges, that they include our fisheries, they include our oceans as part of that discussion.
You’ve got to ensure that. The President of the United States, very frankly, has a responsibility to provide leadership here. And it seems to me, as I’ve said, that this is a wonderful issue to be able to say, “We’re going to set an example of how we protect our oceans, so that we can take that position to the rest of the world community and say, ‘Yes, it can be done.'” Australia’s doing this, they’ve got a wonderful fisheries policy; other nations are beginning to implement strong fisheries policies; there’s no reason why the United States can’t do the same.
CAROL MARIN: Talk to me about squid.
LEON PANETTA: Well, I think one of the concerns that scientists have today is that we’re essentially what they call “fishing to the bottom,” which means that we’re — you know, 90 percent of the large fish are now gone, we’re now fishing at this level and we’re continuing to work our way down the food chain in our oceans. And so at some point we’ll reach plankton, and by that time there won’t be anything left. It happened with squid. When I was a kid in Monterey, squid was basically a bait that was used to go out and catch other fish. And there were a few families that ate it, but not that much.
CAROL MARIN: It was the worm on the hook.
LEON PANETTA: Exactly, it was the equivalent of the worm on a hook. We all used to remember as a kid going out on the wharf, basically my grandfather would buy some squid, and it was cheap, it was very inexpensive, and you’d use it as bait. Today squid is a delicacy in the restaurants in Monterey. And they basically, you know, they flatten it and fry it or whatever and cook it the same way they used to cook abalone, which is now gone largely because of its loss. And so what’s happening is we’re eating our way down the food chain.
CAROL MARIN: Last weekend I went to the grocery store and I bought swordfish. And there was a lot of it; there was no sign to me that we were running out of swordfish, or that 90 percent of the swordfish was gone. So what’s my job in this?
LEON PANETTA: Well, you do have a job in this, and that’s part of the education process that has to take place. I serve on the board of the Monterey Aquarium. One of the things they’re implementing is a little card that basically is being distributed that says, “These are the fish you ought to avoid when you go into a restaurant. These are the fish that you ought to be able to order, because they’re plentiful and they’re not in any way endangered.” And we need to educate people.
There are chefs now that, in restaurants, who are actually saying to their customers, “I am someone who is abiding by these standards. I’m not going to serve you a fish, whether it’s swordfish or whether it’s other fish, that are endangered. I’m not going to serve that.” And what you have to do is essentially develop a culture, very much the way when we used to throw our garbage all in one can, I mean, that’s something we were used to doing. But we’ve now learned to divide paper from bottles and other things. And we’ve learned that and we’re doing a better job at that. I think you’ve got to educate people that they have a role to play in this as well.
CAROL MARIN: Tell me what fish I’m not buying this weekend.
LEON PANETTA: Well, there are a lot of endangered species that are out there. And swordfish from some areas is at the top of that list. There are some halibut species that are also on that list. And there are obviously some shrimp species that are also on that list.
So you really need to look at that kind of information, as does the rest of the public, and then make their decisions accordingly. We’ve all got a role to play in this. This isn’t just the policy makers, it’s also every family [that], in their own way, has to help in dealing with this crisis.
CAROL MARIN: And so since you’ve been doing this, and passionately doing this, are there a lot of species of fish you’re not eating?
LEON PANETTA: There are, absolutely. There are species that I wish I could order when I go to a restaurant or go to a fish market. And I know that I’ve got to stay away from it, because I’ve got to play my own role in terms of ensuring that it’s done. And you know what? It has an impact. It’s amazing, when one restaurant does it, and they advertise it, other restaurants understand that they’ve got to do the same thing. When one fish market starts to do it, and labels that they don’t carry those kinds of endangered species, then others have to do it as well. It becomes the economic club to doing the right thing.
CAROL MARIN: And another pressure point for politicians and governments and commercial businesses.
LEON PANETTA: Exactly, exactly.
CAROL MARIN: Sort of a variation on “You are what you eat.”
LEON PANETTA: That’s very true, we all are and, very frankly, people in their own behavior have to reflect the concern that we talked about because if they don’t, I mean, if they just simply buy whatever’s available and don’t pay attention to their own habits here, then ultimately it sends a message that it doesn’t make any real difference.
CAROL MARIN: You live in a world and are skilled in a world where diplomacy is the operative term, and you negotiate and you compromise. But let’s just argue, for the sake of argument, that won’t work here. Do you take it to the next level in this emergency and start thinking about boycotts, about radical social solutions to get the world’s attention?
LEON PANETTA: My hope in politics is that you never have to reach that point where people have to take to the streets to make you understand that there’s a crisis. I mean, in many ways, it’s too late when that happens. It’s too late in the sense that the crisis may be so large that you may have a tough time getting your hands around it. I think that right now, if we continue through the whole process of educating the American public and the world community as to this crisis, that ultimately it will have a real impact.
There are children now, for example, who are learning about our oceans. I mean, when they go into the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, they’re taught this is what the ocean is about, these are the species that are in trouble. And pretty soon these children begin to go home and say to their parents, “You know, I learned that there are fisheries that are in trouble.” And their parents then start to pay attention. I mean, we have got to make this part of the education process, not only here but in the world. And if we do that, I think ultimately we’ll win this battle.
CAROL MARIN: Because it’s on a kid level. I mean, what you’re really arguing for is, talk to the kids, take it to the grocery store, take it to almost to the lowest common denominator of discussion rather than start at the policy end. And, I mean, you almost have to start at both ends.
LEON PANETTA: You have to start at both ends. The best of all worlds is to have the kind of leadership that is willing to educate the people as to why this has to be dealt with. Because they have the bully pulpit, and they’re the loudest voice that can be heard. But the best of all worlds is to ensure that what’s happening at the grassroots, what’s happening in families, what’s happening in fish markets, what’s happening in restaurants, that all of that is working in tandem with the leadership in this country, and we’re all walking in the same direction.
CAROL MARIN: You’ve talked a lot about leadership. Is it fair to say that you are angry about the lack of leadership?
LEON PANETTA: Yes, I am angry because I see it with other issues as well. When you see a problem, you see a crisis, you see this country — or the world, for that matter — is heading for a cliff, I mean, you’re saying, “Well, wait a minute — we’ve got to change.” We can’t just simply keep walking towards that cliff. We can’t pretend that that cliff isn’t there. We can’t just say, “Don’t worry about it today.”
So yeah, I’m angry, because I really do think this is about the future. Look, I was able as a child to enjoy being able to see the fishing industry, being able to see fishermen and the canneries, and it was a great way of life. I would have loved for my children to have been able to enjoy that same experience. And I guess what I’m saying is, if we want our children to enjoy the ocean and its resources the same way we can enjoy them, then we’re going to have to act now.
CAROL MARIN: Who are the objects of your anger, though? Is it George Bush, is it Kofi Annan, is it the leaders of the EU? I mean, are there names to be named here?
LEON PANETTA: I think leadership at every level bears some responsibility for what’s happening. And it’s not only the leadership, it’s also leadership even at the local level that has to deal with a lot of these issues. All of us, I think it can be said, bear some responsibility when this kind of crisis develops. And all of us bear the responsibility to deal with it and fix it for the future.
CAROL MARIN: If you were to grade the oceans right now, on an A to F scale, what’s the grade?
LEON PANETTA: I think the grade is D. And I think if you ask that family in the film how they would grade it, they would probably give it an F. And so it tells you a lot about the state of our oceans.
CAROL MARIN: What’s the basis of that grade?
LEON PANETTA: I think the fact that — I mean, here is a family that had a livelihood, that no longer has that livelihood. You can’t tell me that it isn’t an F as far as they’re concerned.
CAROL MARIN: Leon Panetta, thank you very much for joining us on WIDE ANGLE.
LEON PANETTA: Thank you.