Reframing Ocean Conservation in this Post-Election Era

Given the election, it seems wise to relinquish expectations of US federal leadership on ocean or climate policy. Our anti-science (among other deeply concerning antis) president-elect and his appointees have sent clear signals about their disregard for our environment and the ethos of sustainability. Yet, a healthy ocean is critical to food security, a stable climate, and the livelihoods and cultures of coastal communities around the globe.

I’m a marine biologist. I love my career in ocean conservation. But because of existential concerns about the incoming administration, my first reaction to the election was to abandon ship and devote myself to preventing near-term human rights abuses. My second reaction was to consider how to better align my personal humanitarian concerns with my professional projects.

Instead of forsaking my field, I have refined my mission. I will focus more sharply on ocean conservation as a social justice issue – working to support poor communities and communities of color who rely on the ocean. These are the people most deeply affected by the impacts of overfishing, pollution, and sea level rise. Creating and nurturing broad coalitions and implementing solutions at these intersections is a needed form of activism. And it’s something I’ve been building toward over the last decade through my work with Caribbean communities and governments, from my PhD research through co-founding the Blue Halo Initiative at the Waitt Institute.

Environmental work remains pressing – the dire trends are continuing regardless of politics. The Department of Defense determined climate change will intensify “global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict,” and 2016 was yet another year of record-breaking high temperatures. Overfishing has killed 90% of tunas and sharks since 1950, and we are on track to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Only 1% of the ocean is fully protected in marine reserves, while scientists recommend at least 30%.

Conservation may not be the center of attention right now, and that’s certainly reasonable, but it’s all connected – by ocean currents and economies. Around 50% of the world’s population lives within 60 km of the coast, and around 75% of large cities are coastal.  Marine fishing alone (not to mention, aquaculture, tourism, and research) provides over 350 million jobs around the world. Over three billion people depend on the ocean for nutrition, as their primary source of protein.

The fallout of this election means it is critical to concentrate on building community and on local solutions, whether toward protecting civil liberties or natural resources. From renewable energy, to fisheries management, to permaculture farming, to wastewater treatment, to habitat restoration, to curriculum development, to reducing waste, there is so much we can do at municipal and state levels to make progress toward sustainability.

We have no idea how it will all play out with the new administration. But the networks and tactics we build and leverage for social justice can also be applied to environmental conservation, and vice versa. So, integrating the personal and professional, I will become a fully engaged neighbor, citizen, volunteer, scientist, dinner-party host, strategist, donor, truth-seeker, and truth teller. I will cultivate and nurture collectivity, gird myself for an even more uphill battle, and not lose faith that we can achieve a diverse, egalitarian society supported by biodiverse ecosystems.


For more of my views on the future of ocean conservation, see my TED talk.

Human Journey


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.