Changing Planet

14 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2014

Chances are you’ve come across some ocean news lately. And it may even have been positive! Yes, the ocean is still in serious trouble due to overfishing, pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction, but there are more and more success stories to point to, and point I shall.

#1. Big year for big marine reserves. Kiribati, Palau, and the Cook Islands each closed over 50% of their waters to commercial fishing, and the U.S. quintupled the size of the Pacific Remote Island National Monument. This is not happening because conservation gives political leaders warm fuzzy feelings, and not just because (as Enric Sala explains) it makes good economic sense for fisheries, but because it’s good PR for tourism and for nations’ international reputations.

Map of expanded Pacific Remote Islands Monument (From
Map of expanded Pacific Remote Islands Monument (via


#2. World leaders gathered to focus on ocean issues. The U.S. Department of State’s Our Ocean conference felt like a turning point in ocean policy. The focus was on success stories, solutions, and government commitments to conservation (see #1, above). Leonardo DiCaprio gave an impassioned keynote speech that became a cover story (“Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio Vow Efforts to Protect the Ocean”), and the conference is slated to become an annual event. There was also a Global Ocean Action Summit in The Hague, focused on the ocean economy.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivering remarks at the Our Ocean Conference (via
Leonardo DiCaprio delivering remarks at the Our Ocean Conference (via


#3. We know what needs to be done to repair Caribbean coral reefs. A report co-authored by 90+ scientists, and analyzing data from 35,000 surveys of Caribbean reefs conducted over 42 years showed that coral has declined 50% since 1970. Yikes! But it also showed that if we protect key herbivores (like parrotfish and urchins) so they can eat the algae off reefs, and if we control coastal pollution and construction, then we may be able put Caribbean reefs on the mend. (See New York Times Op Ed I co-authored with Jeremy Jackson, “We Can Save the Caribbean’s Coral Reefs.”)

Cover of Caribbean Coral Reefs Status Report  (via, photo by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson)
Cover of Caribbean Coral Reefs Status Report (via, photo by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson)


#4. Shark week viewers turned their focus toward conservation. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is the ocean conservation equivalent of the Super Bowl – it’s the most attention the ocean gets from the media all year. Most of the content is designed to make sharks seem like ravenous, terrifying man-eaters, and a shocking amount of it is fabricated. Viewers took to social media to say they’d had enough of this vilification and prevarication, and this year most shark week media coverage was critical. Sharks also got love from the public when Western Australia’s bizarre and horrible “shark culling” policy was met with widespread protests.

Peaceful coexistence of sharks and SCUBA divers in Turks and Caicos (Photo by Kristen Marhaver)


#5. Ocean zoning is gaining traction as a management approach. Over 30 countries have embraced ocean zoning as a management tool. The latest is the Blue Halo Initiative in Barbuda, where the Waitt Institute partnered with the local government to develop comprehensive management plans for their waters. After 17 months of community consultations, this resulted in a zoning map that includes protection of 33% of the coastal waters in marine reserves.

Ocean Zoning factsheet (via Waitt Institute, Click image for PDF version)
Ocean Zoning factsheet (via Waitt Institute, Click image for PDF version)


#6. There is a new wave of scrappy, effective ocean conservation groups. The old guard of large NGOs is holding steady, but it’s exciting to see some new kids on the block. Special shout-outs to The Black Fish (combatting illegal overfishing), SeaSketch (technology for participatory mapping), SoarOcean (drones for ocean enforcement), SkyTruth (remote sensing for fisheries enforcement), Smart Fish (improving value chains for communities), Future of Fish (business solutions for sustainable seafood), and Parley for Oceans (leveraging fashion for conservation).

The new guard of ocean conservation (logos via organization websites)
The new guard of ocean conservation (logos via organization websites)


#7. A big commercial fishery recovered from overfishing. In 2000, the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery was so overfished that it was declared a federal disaster. This year, after years of hard work and collaboration amongst the federal government, fishers, and NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund, the stocks were rebuilt enough that the fishery was certified as sustainable. Sound management works!

Observer aboard a groundfish vessel (photo by NOAA via
Observer aboard a groundfish vessel (photo by NOAA via


#8. The Clinton Global Initiative is focusing on oceans. CGI (an initiative of the Clinton Foundation) has a strong history of fostering cross-sectoral action on important issues, via its promotion of concrete commitments from member organizations. CGI’s burgeoning Ocean Action Network will convene in 2015 to co-create solutions amongst industry, governments, NGOs, and philanthropists.

Pictured here l to r, former President José María Figueres of Costa Rica; Sven Lindblad, Lindblad Expeditions; President Bill Clinton; Ted Waitt, Waitt Foundation, and Enric Sala. (via
Pictured here l to r, former President José María Figueres of Costa Rica; Sven Lindblad, Lindblad Expeditions; President Bill Clinton; Ted Waitt, Waitt Foundation; and Enric Sala, National Geographic. (via


#9. Seafood traceability is being tackled by policymakers and technologists. The trade in illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) catches is difficult to eradicate because the seafood supply chain is largely opaque. In the U.S., up to 32% of imported, wild-caught seafood was caught illegally, and about 33% of seafood is mislabeled. A White House task force is addressing this issue, and a bunch of small organizations (like This Fish) are working to solve hook-to-plate tracking. Eating locally-caught seafood also addresses this problem, and that is gaining traction via community supported fisheries.

Oceana seafood fraud report cover (via
Oceana seafood fraud report cover (via


#10. Plastic pollution in the ocean is getting sustained attention. A new scientific study estimates there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles in the ocean. As the world watched, the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane was complicated by the amount of debris on the ocean’s surface. But the invention that can supposedly collect tons of plastic out of the ocean? – sorry, not gonna work (though see these proven ways to reduce ocean plastic pollution). Meanwhile, in fashion, Pharrell, Bionic Yarn, and Parley for Oceans partnered with G-Star to make quite nice clothing out of ocean plastics.

Ad for G-Star raw for the oceans (via
Ad for G-Star raw for the oceans (via


#11. Local efforts to combat ocean acidification are increasing. A large portion of global CO2 emissions are absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. This threatens ocean life in many ways, from melting corals and eating away the shells of shellfish, to making fish behave oddly and become more vulnerable to predators. But since ~1/3 of ocean acidification is caused by land-based pollution, Washington State (to protect the waters where many delicious oysters are grown) developed an action plan to address local pollution, and Maryland and Maine are following suit.

When the ocean acidifes, shells melt (via
When the ocean acidifes, shells melt (via


#12. Bristol Bay in Alaska was protected from oil and gas drilling. 40% of the U.S.’s wild seafood comes from Bristol Bay. The area has one of the world’s largest salmon runs, and is teaming with whales, seals, and birds. Local and national activists have been fighting for this area’s protection, and succeeded in having the area closed to oil and gas drilling by presidential decree. Next step is to protect the headwaters from the proposed Pebble Mine.

Bristol Bay, Alaska (via
Bristol Bay, Alaska (via


#13. A feature documentary was released about ocean hero Sylvia Earle. Marine biologist and ocean activist Dr. Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to raising awareness about ocean issues and lobbying for conservation. The film Mission Blue captures her story, which is also a story of the ocean conservation movement, and an inspiring story of women in science. Check it out on Netflix. (Dr. Earle was also named one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year!)

Mission Blue film poster (via
Mission Blue film poster (via


#14. Communication on ocean issues is getting better and better. We are (finally! yay!) building critical mass for good communications on ocean issues. Complex issues are being distilled in ways that people get and can relate to. Special shout-outs to the perennial efforts by Upwell, Smithsonian Ocean Portal, National Geographic Ocean Views blog, Marine Affairs Research and Education, One World One Ocean, and The TerraMar Project that are helping all this news bubble to the top. And for more on what’s working in ocean conservation, stay tuned to #OceanOptimism….

Groups doing great ocean communication work (via organization websites)
Groups doing great ocean communication work (via organization websites)


Yes, this year there were also rampant illegal fishing, endangered species going unprotected, tons and tons of trash is being bumped in our ocean, coastlines are being bulldozed, and the water is warming and getting more acidic each minute we don’t deal with climate change, yet…

Here we are. And I’m somewhat optimistic, hoping that this string of ocean wins is a trend and not a blip. Here’s to a continued focus on ocean solutions in 2015, and may it be the year of the parrotfish!

Queen parrotfish eating algae off the reef in Curaçao (photo by Stan Bysshe)
Queen parrotfish eating algae off the reef in Curaçao (photo by Stan Bysshe)
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.
  • Bob Green

    We must be unrelenting in our bid to keep sustainability at the top of the agenda – too many among us are simply living in the proverbial cocoon with not a thought of our tomorrows. As it is our leaders tend to have a vision only as far as the next election also!

  • Richard Damrow

    About time somebody relates what is going right in the world and give due credit to the largely unsung heroes that are making those good things to happen. Lead on!

  • Richard Norris

    As Mary Pipher says in today’s NY Times, “Activism is not like planting core and walking away, rather it’s like milking cows, something you do over and over again all year long.” Three cheers, Ayana, for pointing out what the activism can do! Small seeds are the way we start to grow anything….

  • Simon Blears

    Thank you for acknowledging the work that has been occurring in Western Australia in SUCCEEDING in stopping the WA Government in stopping their horrific Shark Mitigation Strategy, aka Drum Line policy that occurred throughout the summer of 2014. We won.

    However, they have now revised their “Imminent Threat Policy, called in the “Serious Threat Policy” and are now, as I type this, actively hunting an ICUN listed Great White Shark that is ALLEGED to be responsible for unfortunate killing of a 17 year boy near Albany yesterday. Closing beaches and public notices isn’t enough, now we’re known for revenge killing?

  • Dipanjan Mitra

    Really looking forward to a far better 2015 and so forth, with at least double the 14 wins. I am optimistic too.

  • Steve R

    The Cook Islands hasn’t closed 50% of its waters to commercial fishing! They’re proposing to extend the ban on commercial fishing from 12nm to 50nm around the islands. Not the same thing at all!

  • Jan Hegner

    Why was not Sea Shepherd mentioned as a big contributor to helping the health of the oceans. If I am not mistaken the Japanese fleet did not head to Antarctica this year. Isn’t that a huge success on their part???

  • Paul

    It’s a shame you are citing the G-Star Raw For The Oceans as a solution. RPET (recycled plastic) clothes are NOT a solution. It is actually an epic fail which transforms bottle pollution into an even more polluting source of microfibre plastic pollution. (See the work of scientist Mark Browne) Synthetic clothes pollute our oceans and promoting them as “Ocean Friendly” is false.
    Pharrall, Parley and G-Star could instead promote hemp clothing as “For the Oceans” and have a positive influence on supporting an industry that can offer many alternatives to polluting plastics.

  • Karin Nelson

    Please begin talking about what runoff from farming is doing to inland waters which eventually ends up in oceans. I agree, we must be relentless to keep up the pressure on governments to make change. You can make a difference by stopping the consumption of ocean animals to help in the recovery of their numbers and allow the ocean to be as it is meant to be.

  • Peter Chetirkin

    One Earth, One Ocean. We constantly talk about conservation and sustainability, and yet our ocean environment is declining. The ocean is a living organism, we cannot think that our, so-called, sustaining measures are satisfactory. Our policies have often been a menagerie of mismanaged attempts to save various parts of the ocean. We must leave the organism alone and let it heal itself, it will. Therefore let us think in terms of preservation rather than conservation. Let us not take from it but rather give to this incredible blue organism through care and understanding. Let us concentrate on educating and evolving the global youth to be good stewards and help correct our past mistakes.

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