Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s connection to the ocean runs deep. At five, she saw her first coral reef.
“How could rainbow-colored parrot fish with their chomping beaks, and starfish waving their tube feet around not blow your mind!”
And during aquarium visits with her parents, she found electric eels, well…electrifying. But it wasn’t until years later, when she was pondering her future, that the ocean pulled her in again.
“I’ve always wanted to find a job that is more than a job; to find a topic where I could be most effective,” she says. “My parents had met and fallen in love as Civil Rights activists, so the importance of contributing to social change was ingrained in me from an early age.”
Ayana had also absorbed her father’s stories about how devastated ocean ecosystems are today compared to when he was growing up fishing in Jamaica only a few decades ago.
“I resolved to be part of the solution. There are so many fascinating species in the ocean, but ocean conservation is really about people. The ocean doesn’t need us, but we certainly depend on it, in so many ways, for our survival.”
Ayana dove into ocean studies in school and, afterward, rode a wave of environmentally-oriented jobs, from the EPA to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), before landing at the Waitt Institute, becoming its Executive Director in 2013.
“As I have gone from studying ocean conservation to implementing it, I have grappled with…declining ocean health, and the fundamental challenges that ocean management poses to the incomes, dinner tables, and daily lives of individuals. Fisheries laws have real effects on real people, so I take my work very seriously.”
The Waitt Institute, headquartered in Washington D.C., works with committed local governments and the scientific community to develop comprehensive, practical, and sustainable strategies for ocean zoning and fisheries management.
Approximately 1 billion people worldwide depend on the sea for their livelihoods, food, and cultures. So the Institute educates and engages all segments of a community to help restore fish populations and habitats to everyone’s benefit.
Simply put, the Institute’s mission is to empower coastal communities to restore their ocean, and to use the ocean, without using it up.
To that end, Ayana heads up the Waitt Institute’s ‘Blue Halo Initiative,’ aimed at developing a comprehensive, science-based, community-driven approach to ocean conservation. Currently they have programs in 3 Caribbean countries: Barbuda, Montserrat and Curacao.
“The Caribbean way of life is so tied to the ocean – parents and grandparents teaching their kids to fish, enjoying beach parties and fish frys – that ocean conservation is to a large degree about cultural preservation.”
Building on the success of the Blue Halo Initiative, Ayana and her colleagues have developed a tool kit, which she hopes to offer free, starting next year, to anyone who wants to take a similar approach to ocean conservation.
“I want all islands, all countries that have oceans, managing them sustainably.”
And while the work of the Waitt Institute moves forward under Ayana’s leadership, she admits that the changes she envisions will take time and teamwork.
“Ocean conservation is a complex puzzle with many pieces, such as science, law, mapping, communications, education, policy, art, finance, and anthropology.
Successes are far from mine alone. I have re-focused on the long-term, on building endurance, on choosing my battles, and on becoming a bit more like the fabled tortoise than the hare. “
Dr. Johnson holds a BA from Harvard University in Environmental Science and Public Policy, and a Ph.D. in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She is also a blogger for National Geographic. In her spare time, Ayana is a jazz singer and a dance party instigator.
Brush up on your ocean facts with our factsheets on topics including sharks, sustainable seafood, lionfish, mangroves, marine reserves, and more. Then, armed with these facts, advocate for conservation and sustainable use.