Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and Executive Director of the Waitt Institute. Johnson’s mission is to collect, create, actualize and amplify the best ideas in ocean conservation. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, on her blog for National Geographic, in The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a BA from Harvard University in Environmental Science and Public Policy, and has worked on ocean policy at both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You can find her talking oceans on Twitter @ayanaeliza
“People used to talk about the size of the fish they caught vertically,” says a perspicacious 15-year-old Curaçaoan holding his hands off the ground at head height. “But now we show fish size horizontally.” As the young man lowers his hands at shoulder width apart to demonstrate this, it is strikingly clear the great fishing catches of old have all but gone in the southern Caribbean Sea.
The vibrantly scenic shores and glistening beaches of this bustling island are in stark contrast with the rather gloomier outlook of the once thriving Caribbean ecosystems that supported local fisheries. Speak to any of the older residents or fishermen on Curaçao and they’ll swear by the unprecedented changes they’ve seen in their oceans in the last half century.
This is a familiar picture across the Caribbean, which is suffering from the same threats of overfishing, climate change, pollution and habitat loss, seen worldwide. In August 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) listed 20 species of coral as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, including five Caribbean species. Projected impacts of global warming and ocean acidification motivated this action, but as marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson eloquently writes in a New York Times op-ed: “climate change really is only half the story.”
Johnson’s encounter with the young Curaçaoan and his jarringly precocious words struck a chord with her eight years ago, in the midst of her PhD research. Focusing on fisheries management and ecology in the southern Caribbean, she interviewed more than 400 fishermen, scuba divers, and locals in Curaçao and Bonaire, to inquire what major changes they had seen in their oceans.
“It is critical to understand what local people see as the threats to the ocean, as the perceived problems have a huge influence on what the perceived solutions should be,” says Johnson. “Often scientists’ outside perspective can be very different to the local one – and this can lead to disconnect when discussing sustainable policy and solutions.”
Connecting the dots
Johnson’s affinity for the ocean goes right back to childhood, long before she became Executive Director of the Waitt Institute, a non-profit organisation, which “empowers communities to restore their oceans.”
“Like many kids when they are first exposed to the ocean and marine life, I had an immediate affinity for this beautiful and fascinating world,” says Johnson, who studied environmental science and public policy at Harvard University. “Visiting the Florida Keys as a five year-old and seeing the reef and fish really amazed me, and the sight of an electric eel sealed the deal. I asked my mother who the people were studying the ocean, and from that moment I wanted to be a marine biologist.”
Before joining the Watt Institute in July 2012, the New York-raised marine biologist worked on ocean policy at both the NOAA and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Her motivation is trying to ensure sustainable seafood for the one billion people who depend on the ocean for their nutrition and livelihoods.
“The most exciting challenge is connecting the dots in a new way to reach wide audiences and convey the importance and value of ocean resources, not just for conservation, but for livelihoods, culture, food and national security,” enthuses Johnson, who believes humans can use ocean resources in a way that is simultaneously ecologically, economically and culturally sustainable. “A lot of what we do at the Waitt Institute is about trying to embed ocean conservation and sustainable use into the broader dialogue of how humans interact with the planet and improve that relationship.
“A lot of people think of conservation as putting nature first; I don’t think of it that way. I believe without conservation we don’t have the resources that we as humans need to thrive, let alone survive.”
Born to a Jamaican father, Johnson’s heart lies very close to the Caribbean and much of her energy today is spent working with islanders on ocean conservation. She believes climate change is a looming threat, but insists many of the ocean problems in the Caribbean can be controlled locally.
This view is supported by a detailed report (of which Johnson was a co-author) released last year by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The report amassed 40 years of data collected between 1970 and 2012 from 90 locations, to look at the changing status of the Caribbean reefs. Data taken from more than 35,000 surveys indicated that the amount of coral has declined by more than 50% since the 1970s.
The report suggested most Caribbean coral reefs could disappear in the next few decades, unless overfishing, coastal development, and pollution are dramatically reduced. Yet despite “the alarming rate” of decline, the authors remained buoyant. Their claim was that through restoring parrotfish populations and improving protection from overfishing and excessive coastal pollution, local governance could help the reefs recover and make them more resilient to future climate change impacts.
“I think there’s been this sort of defeatism in the face of climate change. The empowering results of this report emphasise that communities, if given the scientific and technical support, can help to restore their oceans in the face of this wider global challenge,” says Johnson.
Home to nine per cent of the world’s coral reefs, the Caribbean generates more than $3 billion annually from tourism and more than a hundred times more in other goods and services, which 43 million people depend on, say the IUCN.
What the report also showed is that some of the healthiest Caribbean coral reefs are those that harbour thriving populations of grazing parrotfish, such as Bermuda and Bonaire. In both instances, restrictions or bans on fishing practices that harm parrotfish have been introduced, including fish traps and spearfishing. Johnson has herself played a big role in helping empower new regulations in countries, most recently in the north-eastern Caribbean island of Barbuda.
Blue Halo Initiative
Barbuda is quite the anomaly among many islands in the Caribbean: relatively remote, largely undeveloped and pretty much untouched by tourism, it lies 30 miles north of Antigua with a small population of just 1,600 and rules forbidding foreign ownership of land. It was here the Waitt Institute embarked on its first island-wide project in early 2013, tasked with developing a comprehensive sustainable management policy working with both the government and community.
“We wanted to work with a government that was an eager partner, as well as people who understood that the threat to their ocean resources had a big impact on their community,” says Johnson. “I met Barbudans, fell in love with the island, and saw there was great interest in a project aimed at improving ocean management— which became the Blue Halo Initiative.”
Johnson assembled a multidisciplinary team that over the course of a year and half would consult with the Barbuda Council, local fishermen and islanders to “design a plan to use the ocean (video) without using it up.” Initial feelings of trepidation from a foreign team of scientists, conservationists, policy and legal experts coming to a fairly untouched island subsided, and the community largely embraced their presence.
The team arrived to the community already having great concerns about the overfishing of parrotfish, the destructive use of nets, and the need to control illegal fishing in Barbuda’s shores. Johnson describes the once abundant Palastar Reef surrounding the island as “a graveyard of coral skeletons, and a ghost town with few fish.” Josiah Deazle, also known as Papa Joe, the island’s oldest active fishermen, sums up the issues in an interview with Johnson. “People don’t seem to understand that things are getting worse. If it goes good, it’s good for everybody; if it goes bad, it’s bad for everybody. It’s everybody’s business.”
After months of interviews and seven rounds of consultations, the team created a set of scientific recommendations based on their research and community concerns and observations. In August 2014, Barbuda Council signed into law new ocean management regulations that zone the coastal waters, strengthen fisheries management, and establish a network of marine sanctuaries. Johnson hopes these will set an inspiring example for the region.
“The people of Barbuda have a strong connection to the sea— fish fries, camping on beaches, kids growing up learning to fish with their parents and grandparents. In order to preserve their way of life, ocean ecosystems must be protected,” says Johnson.
The regulations created five marine sanctuaries covering 33 per cent of the coastal waters. Catching parrotfish and sea urchins has become prohibited, as the herbivores are critical to keeping algae levels on reefs low so coral can thrive. A two-year hiatus on fishing in Codrington Lagoon will enable fish populations to rebuild and habitats to recover. Barbuda became the first Caribbean island to put in place such a comprehensive set of important measures.
Plans are in place to set up a long-term scientific monitoring programme, train local staff in marine ecology and field research techniques, and work with the island’s schools to develop an ocean education curriculum.
Johnson cites the Barbuda project as one of many reasons to be optimistic about the future of ocean management. “Just as the science is very straightforward, in many cases, the policy is too,” enthuses Johnson. “That connection between the people who use the resources, the scientists and the policy-makers is so important and can yield some incredibly straightforward, yet effective, outcomes – many of which are being shared across the conservation community online using #oceanoptimism.”
Communicating ocean issues
With so little public knowledge of the ocean, which covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface to an average depth of almost 4km, Johnson believes scientific communication is fundamental to helping improve understanding. “The general public doesn’t necessarily understand the ocean or relate to ocean issues and this causes a great challenge at a political level. For decisions to be influenced at a political level, you need a constituency that cares. An informed public leads to better policy-making, as people are able to lobby and influence their leaders about what they’d like to see as far as ocean sustainability.”
She continues: “I think we’ve still got a long way to go as a conservation community in terms of how we collaborate, engage and explain our work to the public. Scientific research is not useful if it sits in the pages of academic journals – it must be taken out into the world and presented to communities and governments, so that it can be used to make sound policies.”
Despite feeling there is more to be done in communication, Johnson is buoyed by how many ocean scientists are now becoming more savvy in the way they use social media and multimedia to communicate their findings. “It is exciting to see the scientific community engaging in more outreach and communication,” says Johnson. “Many scientists have sadly watched the ecosystem they studied fall apart and have really embraced the importance of engaging with the wider community.”
Johnson notes that economics has now started playing a bigger role in conservation dialogue and despite her initial hesitation, has now warmed to the idea. “It seems dollars is a language that everybody speaks. We need to be able to describe in economic terms why an area should become protected, or how limiting fishing will enable a fishery to recover and make a million dollars more in five years. There’s much more to the equation of designing policy, protecting communities and preserving livelihoods than the dollars alone can convey, but I’m encouraged that the science community is investing more time and energy in studying, explaining and modelling the economic side.”
Sustaining coastal livelihoods
Communication has clearly played a major role in the success of the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative, and that pilot project became the model which the Waitt Institute is now replicating with the launches of Blue Halo Montserrat and Blue Halo Curaçao this month.
Much like the young Curaçaoan that stopped Johnson in her tracks during her PhD research, it is the generational stories of abundant reefs and plentiful fish supplies, so important to local culture, which continue to motivate the institute’s work in the Caribbean.
“When my father used to go free diving off the coast of Kingston, the harbour was brimming with life. Our aim, put simply, is to try and sustain the coastal livelihoods and culture he grew up with — that are now threatened,” concludes Johnson.