National Geographic Society Newsroom

Our Ocean Conference: A Turning Point for Ocean Conservation?

By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Jacob James Ocean conservation is in need of action, not talk, but the Our Ocean Conference, hosted by Secretary John Kerry and the U.S. Department of State last week was not just hot air. Rather, it was worth its carbon footprint, and we were honored to attend. All in attendance...

By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Jacob James

Ocean conservation is in need of action, not talk, but the Our Ocean Conference, hosted by Secretary John Kerry and the U.S. Department of State last week was not just hot air. Rather, it was worth its carbon footprint, and we were honored to attend.

All in attendance seemed to agree on the key challenges: sustainable management of fishing, the need for creation of marine reserves, reduction in greenhouse gases, and reducing ocean pollution. So the question quickly became: What steps can we take today and tomorrow to tackle these challenges?

The Our Ocean Conference provided a much-needed platform for governments, scientists, corporations, non-profit organizations, and philanthropists to collectively address this question.

The conference was unequivocally successful in several ways, including:

  1. Setting a deadline that forces entities to plan commitments they can announce publicly.
  2. Gathering decision makers and doers for all the valuable tangential business that gets done.
  3. Raising the profile of ocean issues in the mainstream media.

The conference-as-deadline resulted in a suite of notable announcements including:

Map of Palau National Marine Sanctuary. (Image source Our Ocean Conference)

  • The Bahamas’ announcement of intent to designate a network of 15 new MPAs, aiming for a near-term goal of protecting 10 percent of their waters by year-end .

And, of course, we at the Waitt Foundation and Waitt Institute were certainly pleased when our Chairman, and National Geographic Board Member, Mr. Ted Waitt announced our commitment to five years of funding for the Fish Forever initiative, the release of’s Campaign Tracker, and the Waitt Institute’s new mission of partnering with governments to “empower communities to restore their oceans,” replicating the model created with the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative.

Pretty cool hear Secretary Kerry give a shoutout in his closing remarks to our boss, recollecting when Mr. Waitt “told me he was really going to put his energy and focus into the oceans, and he has done that tremendously and importantly.”

Graph of Twitter mentions of #OurOcean2014 by Upwell (See:
Graph of Twitter mentions of #OurOcean2014 by Upwell. (Image source

As for media coverage, DiCaprio’s announcement made quite a splash in both the mainstream media (“Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio vow efforts to protect the ocean – The Washington Post”) and Twitter. And it was a thrill to see coverage by the Washington Post (see: editorial), The New York Times (see: editorial), Time Magazine, and others. The social media reach of the event paled compared to the world up, but dwarfed other ocean events.

All told the Our Ocean Conference is said to have garnered over $800 million in ocean conservation commitments. And it was exciting to see many of the initiatives funded by the Waitt Foundation be highlighted, from Pristine Seas’ work with Kiribati, to Oceans 5’s work with the Cook Islands, to The Nature Conservancy’s work toward The Bahamas’ burgeoning MPA network, to Pew’s to Global Ocean Legacy’s work with Palau, to the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative being featured as a top ocean conservation success story.

Map of Phoenix Islands Protected Area
Map of Phoenix Islands Protected Area. (Image source

While many positives came from the Our Ocean Conference, we found ourselves left yearning for facilitated deep discussions that would force attendees to grapple with tough issues, and co-create a strategic action plan to address these issues. This is hard, but it is necessary—there is still work to be done to get global actors on the same page for recovering our oceans’ health. However, we commend the State Department on producing an action plan document.  Further, the Waitt Foundation & Institute proudly join in the State Department’s support the creation of a standalone Sustainable Development Goal at the United Nations that addresses ocean issues.

Broadly, it was heartening (though long overdue) to see much needed attention turn to the ocean last week.  Following on the heels of the conference was the release of the Global Ocean Commission’s recommended “Rescue Package for the Global Ocean” that identifies concrete priorities for sweeping international reforms.

It has been a positive few weeks for building inertia on ocean issues. Realists though we are, we hope to look back on June 2014 as a turning point for how we manage 71 percent of our planet, as the date when ocean conservation talk turned to serious action on a global scale.

Ted Waitt, me, and Jacob James at the Our Ocean Conference.
Ted Waitt, Ayana, and Jacob James at the Our Ocean Conference.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
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.