Ask: What do you want your ocean to look like? Then listen.

There is a lot of talk in conservation about “community-based” and “stakeholder-driven” projects, but what does that really mean? When pursued honestly, it can be summarized in one word: vulnerability.

The Waitt Institute’s evolving approach to ocean conservation is based on asking a community two questions: What do you want your ocean to look like? How can we help you get there?

Sign of hope: A young elkhorn coral grows amidst a field of algae and rubble.
Sign of hope: A young elkhorn coral (once abundant but now rare) grows amidst a field of algae and dead coral rubble. (Photo: Mark Vermeij)

I’ve been asking these questions lately in the context of Barbuda and the Blue Halo Initiative that I am leading there. Last week we held our second community consultation meetingI stood up in front of the citizens and conveyed management recommendations based on the ecological assessment we conducted around Barbuda in April, and based on the scientific literature. I had to say the words, “Your reefs are 79% algae and only 2.6% coral, so we recommend banning the catch of key herbivores (parrotfish, surgeonfish, and urchins) to give the reefs a chance to recover.”

That was only one of ten strong recommendations we made. My heart was thumping. Although I had interviewed fifty of the island’s fishermen, and knew that because they had seen the reefs and fisheries plummet they were overwhelmingly supportive of the policies we recommend, I was nervous. Recommending to a community that they stop doing something they have always done is a big deal – even if it’s with the goal of ensuring ocean-based livelihoods for future generations. I don’t take it lightly, and I don’t expect my words will be warmly received. But, the good news is that they were.

Discussion of new fisheries policies at a community consultation meeting in Barbuda.
Discussion of new fisheries policies at a community consultation meeting in Barbuda. (Photo: Ayana)

More broadly, our approach to community-based management goes something like this: Identify a community interested in improving the sustainability of their ocean management. Encourage and support their efforts by providing scientific, legal, and mapping assistance, and by building local capacity for monitoring and enforcement. Know that you have no real control over what happens – you’re not a citizen, you can’t write the laws, you’re an outsider culturally and often racially – but you are deeply invested in the outcome as a humanist, scientist, and over time, more and more as an empath. Explain that you want to see the community continue to make a living from and continue to enjoy their ocean forever. But you are a guest. All you can do is provide information, make recommendations, be respectful, and hope that you will be well received.

Healthy mangroves and clear water in Codrington Lagoon provide critical nursery habitat for lobster and fish.
Healthy mangroves and clear water in Codrington Lagoon provide critical nursery habitat for lobster and fish. (Photo: Jennifer Caselle)

We have no control over a community’s answers, over what their priorities and vision are. Clearly, if a community says they want to fish until they catch the last fish and their ocean looks barren like the surface of the moon, or denuded like a clearcut forest we’d say, “You’re on your own. We want to help you achieve a sustainable future.” And if the response is that they want to close their entire ocean to fishing, and base their economy on nature tourism we’d say, “Have you considered the impacts on your economy and culture? Do you have plans for attracting tourism investments and for supporting alternative livelihoods during this transition?” And if people say they want 1,000 jet skis to promote tourism and to bulldoze some mangroves to dock them, we’d say, “That’s not in our budget, and we don’t think destroying the critical nursery habitat for your valuable lobster and fish populations is a good idea.”

However, rarely are things so black and white. There is a huge amount of grey area and cultural specificity to designing a Sustainable Ocean Policy that will actually work in a place.

The health of the ocean and the state of most fisheries is so poor that letting people catch as many fish as they want, wherever they want, however they want, anytime they want is clearly a terrible option. The fishermen I have spoken with feel this most deeply because they see it every day when they have to go further from shore and into deeper waters to make a good catch. It’s higher fuel cost, more dangerous, and less catch. It’s barely profitable. The refrain: “It’s not like it used to be.” So fishermen are the Waitt Institute’s and the ocean’s strongest allies here in Barbuda, and listening to their challenges and stories is invaluable.

Our collaborative effort to create a management system that leads to the more abundant ocean Barbudans want is building inertia at the local level (the head of local government says he foresees no objections to the recommendations) and the national level (last week the Prime Minister formally endorsed the Initiative), but the work is not nearly done yet. Until it is, we’ll keep asking the questions: What do you want your ocean to look like in the future? How can we help you get there? And we’ll keep listening, and brainstorming solutions.

Fishing boats at Barbuda’s Coco Point, where high-end tourism and artisanal fishing coexist. (Photo: Ayana)

(This post is dedicated to my mother, Louise Maher-Johnson, on her 69th birthday. She reminds me to “Be with the people. And listen.”)

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.