Human Journey

How to Use the Ocean Without Using it Up

This TED talk was developed while I was in residence at TED headquarters in New York City. Watch it here, and the transcript and slides are is below.


When I was five, my parents took me from Brooklyn, NY to Key West, Florida. They taught me to swim, and showed me my first a coral reef. I feel completely in love with the ocean and decided to become a marine biologist. Then, over the next two decades, I went from that wonder, to concern, to practical ocean conservation solutions.

TED talk image 1 - Key West
Learning to swim in Key West, Florida. After my Jamaican father got in the pool we basically had it to ourselves. Perk of racism: doing cannonballs with impunity.

I’ve worked in non-profits, philanthropy, government. I’ve had the opportunity to see this problem from many angles. And the most important lesson I’ve learned is that ocean conservation is not about fish. It’s about people. And it’s people who keep me devoted to my mission: figuring out how we can use the ocean, without using it up.

The economies and cultures of coastal communities all over the world are at risk, because they’re tied to the health of the ocean. And the ocean is really unhealthy right now. This year 93% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was hit by bleaching because climate change made the water too warm for corals. Overfishing is so extreme that since 1950 we’ve killed around 90% of the world’s tunas and sharks. And we’re on track to have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.


Science → Policy → People

How do we fix this? I used to think that if we just had more scientific research, that science would be used to make the best policy decisions. But that’s not how it actually works. For example, as part of my Ph.D. research I designed a fish trap with escape slots in the corners that would allow juvenile fish and unmarketable species to escape.

TED talk image 2 - fish trap
Diagram of the fish trap with escape gaps. It reduces the bycatch of juvenile and ornamental species by ~80%, without reducing fishermen’s incomes!

This more sustainable fish trap design is now required by law in several countries. But this low-tech and low-cost solution would never have gained traction if I hadn’t also proved that using it would not hurt fishermen’s incomes. Because the biggest factor in policy change is political will, and fishermen are voters. To build political will we need to understand where citizens are coming from.

Interviewing fishermen on the roadside in Curaçao as they sell their catch.
Interviewing fishermen on the roadside in Curaçao as they sell their catch.

So my research shifted to sociology, and I interviewed over 400 fishermen and SCUBA instructors. A 15-year-old fisherman explained the dramatic depletion of the ocean by saying: “Previous generations used to show the size of fish they caught vertically. Now we show fish size horizontally.” The large groupers, snappers, cod, and other large predatory fish that were once abundant are gone in many places, hurting livelihoods and destabilizing ecosystems.

Curaçaoan spearfisherman Jose Streder in 1960, with a goliath grouper. These fish are now effectively extinct in Curaçao's waters.
Curaçaoan spearfisherman Jose Streder in 1960 with a goliath grouper. These fish are now effectively extinct in Curaçao’s waters.

The majority of people I interviewed were eager to see sustainable management put into place, and at a comprehensive scale. They were thinking about the entire social-economic-ecological system — about the impacts of cruise ships, pollution, climate change, noise, tourism, etc. So I took a step back, to see the big picture.


Ocean Zoning as a Policy Solution

I now think a key policy solution is to zone the ocean, so we have a solid plan for what happens where. Just like zoning on land, ocean zoning can allocate places fishing, shipping, SCUBA diving, alternative energy, aquaculture, and conservation.

Diagram of ocean zoning, including areas for fishing, SCUBA diving, shipping, offshore energy, and conservation. (Courtesy Waitt Institute)
Diagram of ocean zoning, including areas for fishing, SCUBA diving, shipping, offshore energy, and conservation. (Courtesy Waitt Institute)

When I was Executive Director of the Waitt Institute, I had an incredible opportunity to work with the government and community of Barbuda, a small Caribbean island. We supported them in designing and implementing ocean zoning.

In an effort to be truly inclusive, this sometimes meant gently interrupting dominos games to get input from fishermen who wouldn’t come to community meetings. All these conversations enabled me to identify consensus, which built the political will needed to put in place a groundbreaking plan that would both serve their current needs and conserve ocean resources for future generations.

Getting input from stakeholders on the local government's draft ocean zoning plan.
Getting input from stakeholders on the local government’s draft ocean zoning plan. (Courtesy Will McClintock)

After 18 months of work and community feedback, the government signed new laws that included setting aside one-third of their waters as protected (the areas in blue). This was the first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort in the Caribbean.

Three iterations of Barbuda's coastal zoning map, which evolved substantially over 18 months of community input.
Three iterations of Barbuda’s coastal zoning map, which evolved substantially over 18 months of community input. We used SeaSketch to gather zoning proposals from stakeholders. (Courtesy Waitt Institute)

We went on to launch this program, the Blue Halo Initiative, on the islands of Curaçao and Montserrat. Comprehensive, science-based, community-driven ocean zoning works, and we need much more of it.

Press conference with Curaçao's Prime Minister Whiteman, launching the Blue Halo Initiative there.
Press conference with Curaçao’s Prime Minister Whiteman, launching the Blue Halo Initiative there. (Courtesy Waitt Institute)


The Need for Triage

Communities embrace conservation — when it’s part of the broader discussion of sustainable use, and when that discussion is grounded in local culture. However, given the severity of climate change and the rate at which our enormous human population is consuming resources and producing pollution, we simply can’t save everything everywhere right now.

It’s time for triage. By designating places as: not at immediate risk, in need of immediate attention, or beyond help we can strategically allocate resources to maximizes conservation benefits. As much as it pains me to say so, this may mean giving up on places that have already been decimated, like the coral reefs of the Florida Keys where I learned to swim, and focusing our efforts elsewhere.

TED talk image 9 - time for triage


Use the Ocean Without Using it Up

The goal of both triage and zoning is to use the ocean without using it up. So, despite all the threats to the ocean I’m an optimist most days. Because ocean conservation is not about fish. Fish are swimming around trying to eat, make babies, avoid getting eaten; they are doing their jobs just fine.

Ocean conservation is about people. And addressing the threats of climate change, overfishing, and pollution will require major changes in public policy and human behavior. Change this fundamental in how we use the ocean will not be easy.

But ocean conservation is a matter of cultural preservation. The ocean will be just fine without us — in fact it would be much better off! — but the opposite is unequivocally untrue. Put simply, we need the ocean.

Barbudan kids playing in the water during the Blue Halo Initiative's kids ocean camp.
Barbudan kids playing in the water during the Blue Halo Initiative’s kids ocean camp. Shoutout to Stephanie Roach for developing this education program. (Courtesy Waitt Institute).


For more on my ocean conservation projects and views see and find me on Twitter @ayanaeliza.

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.
  • John Boehnert

    Very thoughtful article, thank you. You may be interested in my book Zoning the Oceans The Next Big Step in Coastal Zone Management, published by the American Bar Association.

    All best.

    • Thanks so much. And wonderful to know that you’ve also worked deeply on this. I’ll add your book to my reading list!

  • Ocean & Climate platform

    Very good speech, thanks, we’ll share it

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media