Leon Panetta is the Director of the Panetta Institute as well as former Chief of Staff to President Clinton


Can you talk a little bit about the state of marine fisheries in the US?

There's no question that we take our oceans for granted. The commission basically determined as a result of that that our oceans are in crisis. That we're seeing a depletion of our wildlife, our ocean wildlife, with reports that ninety percent of the big fish are gone. We're seeing that happen here.
Combine that with pollution problems that are really impacting, creating dead zones. Combined with the growth that is happening along our coastline, the development that's taking place along the coastline. Combine that with the way we currently manage our fisheries, and the governance chaos really that exists. It all spells "real crisis" for America's oceans. And in turn, creates a real responsibility of stewardship, if we're going to ever fix it.

What's the importance of the role of aquaculture in terms of the starting to alleviate over-fishing problems, take pressure off marine fisheries?

Aquaculture is an industry that is going to continue to grow and expand. Why? We depend on our fisheries. We depend on it for our nutrition, we depend on it for our health, and we depend on it for our very livelihood. So when the wild fisheries are in trouble, we go to farming fish. That's what aquaculture is all about. So for all the concerns that many have with regards to this growing new industry, the reality is that it's going to continue to expand because the demand is there. As long as the demand is there, you will see aquaculture expand. As I'm sure you're aware, some of the critics of different sectors within the aquaculture industry, are concerned that some of the same mindset that's contributed with regard to fisheries management, to the decline of ocean fish population- they're concern is maybe that same mindset is at the steering wheel with the regulation, or at least with the industry and possibly the regulation of marine aquaculture. I think they're talking about proceeding without necessary precautionary approach.

You've got an industry that is expanding rapidly. The problem right now is that, you have 50 different states that have 50 different standards that are applied to aquaculture. And the problem is that as long as you have these very different approaches to aquaculture, there's going to be a real haphazard approach here. Some states will do a good job regulating, some will not, and overall, I think we really do have a responsibility at the federal level. We are talking after all about interstate commerce here. What's raised in these fisheries travels through interstate commerce. As a result it seems to me there's a legitimate issue about whether or not national standards ought to be set for how these aquaculture forums operate. That's not to say there aren't people who are responsible and trying to do the right kind of job, I think there are. But I also think in fairness to them, everybody's got to play by the same rules, and right now, we've got 50 different sets of rules.

Given that the seafood market is a global market and a lot of the farm-raised seafood available now is being produced in other countries that have very different regulatory regimes, what do you think of the importance of a certification scheme? That is, the labeling of certain types of farm-raised seafood as sustainable.

Consumers have become a lot more sensitive. Certainly they've become more sensitive about what's happening in the wild fisheries, and which ones they should or should not buy in the market. I think the same thing is true for farmed fishing. These concerns have been recognized and developed about how these aquaculture operations vary and they do. If you look at what's going on in Southeast Asia, if you look at what's going on in China, if you look at, at the different operations throughout the world, there are a lot of concerns about just exactly what's happening. It only makes sense to give consumers that information. It doesn't mean some won't buy it, that's fine. I think giving consumers the right information about where these farmed fish were raised, and whether or not they were raised in accordance with the kind of standards that hopefully the United States does, consumers need to know that and then buy accordingly.

In terms of helping to promote sustainable aquaculture and fisheries from a policy point of view, do you have any thoughts on how average citizens can be involved in that or whether they ought to be?

Average citizens have to care because there's an interrelationship here, it's not like, you're suddenly removing this and it's not having an impact. As we know, these aquaculture farms can in fact have an impact on the wild fisheries. They can have an impact in terms of our coastal development. They can have an impact in terms of the waters that are along our coast and therefore affect the habitats that impact on other fisheries and that impact on the quality of waters that we have along our coastline. So there's an interrelationship here. It's not as if uh, they're isolated from the rest of nature. And because of that, citizens need to care about how these operate, how they're approved, whether they're operating by certain standards. Again, it's not to say that these businesses shouldn't have a right to exist. They will and they should. But it is in the interest of every citizen to make sure that these farms operate by standards that ensure not only that they're producing the right kind of product themselves, but also that they aren't impacting on the wild fisheries.

What is the importance, in your opinion, of environmental sustainability considerations with regard to international trade policy?

Sustainability is what it's all about. One of the things we found at the Pew commission is that if you're really going to protect our fisheries, you've got to develop a policy of sustainability. Which basically means that you're going to develop a resource that is there and it's protected and it's not only there for the present, but it's there for the future. We've seen examples of sustainable fisheries that we think are models for how we ought to be able to manage our fisheries. What they do is they implement standards, they implement requirements, and they set certain limits. As a result of that, that resource has not only expanded, it is a resource that has assured that it's always going to be with us.

Well, I think the same thing needs to be applied when it comes to our fish farms. They have to develop those farms in a way that ensures sustainability for the future. And not just come in on a very hit and miss basis, kind of a boom-bust basis: go in, develop the fisheries, no matter what happens, sell them as quickly as you can, make a lot of money and move on. That is going to damage not only their industry, but it's going to damage as I said, the whole reputation of the aquaculture industry.

What are your thoughts on the National Marine Fishery study about giving leases on the continental shelf offshore waters?

If we're talking about a national resource, one of the things that the Commission has tried to stress with this country is we've got to treat our ocean waters as a national trust. A hundred years ago Teddy Roosevelt made us aware of the fact that we had to treat our land and the beauty of our land as a national trust. Well, what we're trying to do a hundred years later is make people recognize that we have the same responsibility of stewardship to our oceans. Now if you're going to start leasing areas offshore for the use of fish farms, for the cages to raise certain fish. Then I think you've got to be assured that it is being done in a way that meets our required standards. Because don't forget, anything you put out there in the ocean, whether it's an oil rig or anything else- it's going to impact on wildlife.

It's going to impact on habitat. And for that reason, I think we just need to be doubly careful when that happens it's done by standards that ensure that there will not be damage to the wildlife. There should not be damage to the habitat, and sufficient protection will be taken by whoever operates out there to make sure that whatever happens in those cages doesn't impact on the wildlife around them. Because if it does, then all we're doing is essentially planting the seeds for double trouble in the future. We were concerned in the Pew Commission, that what we saw was that we were taking our oceans for granted. The oceans are a huge resource out there, probably the largest resource that we have any kind of jurisdiction over. By taking it for granted, we're doing serious damage to it. We thought that there was a crisis out there. What our report confirms is that indeed our oceans are in crisis. Crisis in terms of our fisheries because we are seeing our fisheries damaged by a lot of factors: in part over-fishing, in part pollution, in part just the impact of weather systems, etcetera, are really affecting our fisheries.

Secondly we're seeing increased pollution along our coastline, creating dead zones the size of Massachusetts, in which there is no sea life because of pollution coming off the land. We're seeing coastal development - over fifty percent of our population lives along the coast. And that's going to expand. As it does it will impact on our habitats and our fisheries and our wetlands. We're losing almost twenty thousand acres of wetlands each year. All of this is combined with, very frankly, chaotic governance at the federal level, at the state level and the local level. In which competing and conflicting guidelines create chaos in terms of management. Put all those factors together and it spells real crisis for our oceans. And it means that we have a responsibility of stewardship to really ensure that we do a much better job of protecting that glorious resource that's out there that we depend on.