By Chris Adams

Leon Panetta has had a long and illustrious career in the halls of Washington power: congressman, presidential chief of staff, director of the CIA, secretary of defense.

At the start of that career – and interwoven throughout it – was the ocean. His grandfather was a fisherman, and he grew up in Monterey, California, the coastal town celebrated for its Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row. He’s now chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay,

President John F. Kennedy once said, “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean.”

And citing that famous quote, Panetta said, “That certainly was true for me.”

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Panetta talked about his role in helping establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the waters off Central California, and his work on the Pew Oceans Commission, which sought to lay down some of the critical challenges facing the world’s waters. Among those are increasing pollution, coastal development, the loss of wetlands and a hodgepodge regulatory structure.

“There are areas of our oceans that are virtual dead zones,” he said.

He also acknowledged the conflict between the worthy goals of protecting natural resources and sustaining the fishing industry – something that was central to the development of his hometown. Overfishing is a real problem, but fishermen have also been on the defensive because “their livelihoods are on the line,” he said.

What’s needed, he said, “is a Teddy Roosevelt of the oceans.” And that gets to his concern about the lack of partisan cooperation in just about every issue in Washington these days.

“There’s a tendency to take our oceans for granted,” he said. “But if you look at them, they are becoming very fragile.”