[This interview was featured in the recent issue of Oceana magazine.]
If you don’t know his name, you should— James Connaughton was George W. Bush’s environmental adviser during his presidency. As chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Ocean Policy, he played a critical role in establishing four new Marine National Monuments in the Pacific, which make up the largest national marine sanctuary in the world. Connaughton was a special guest at Oceana’s SeaChange Summer Party last August, where guests donated more than $1 million for ocean conservation.
Have you always been interested in ocean conservation?
Ever since I was a little boy, I was inspired by the Cousteau specials that aired on TV. At a very early age I had great experiences at the Maryland seashore, including going clamming in the muck in my bare feet, crabbing, fishing, and learning all about the challenges that the Chesapeake Bay was facing. After that I was in the Boy Scouts, which places heavy emphasis on conservation, and my troop was very active outdoors, especially in the bay and on the Maryland seashore.
Conservation is often portrayed as a liberal cause. Is that the case with ocean conservation?
Conservation is conservative. In the U.S. the most significant emblem of that is Teddy Roosevelt, a very prominent Republican. Even with the ebb and flow of partisan politics, the ocean issues have largely been tackled on a strongly bipartisan basis. It’s the result of the personalities involved and also the result of the challenges of dealing with the oceans as a natural commons.
You played a role in several ocean conservation victories during your time in the White House. Which victory are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being part of a very large collaboration to accomplish the largest act of natural resource conservation in history, through the designation of the four marine national monuments in the Pacific. Coming in a close second is the work that was done to pass legislation unanimously in Congress to end overfishing in America, and to put in place a much more highly-collaborative, science-based and locality-based coastal and ocean management regime for the United States.
What are the greatest threats facing the ocean today?
Global overfishing is still endemic and there is a massive amount of needless waste in the processes of obtaining sustenance from fish. That is exacerbated by a lot of unregulated fishing and a lot of ignorance about the best practices and capabilities of technology to enhance yields and foster conservation at same time. We know from successful experiences in New Zealand, Australia, and major portions of the U.S. that strong and sustainable fishing can occur in the context of very effective, conservation-based management.
What needs to happen right now to ensure the future of our oceans?
The developed world needs to finish the job and implement more effective fishing regimes to help accelerate recovery of fish stocks. We also need to transfer those capabilities rapidly to emerging economies as soon as possible.