Grappling With Ocean Conservation and Social Justice, with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Marine biologist, policy expert, and conservation strategist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson discusses the challenges and possibility she sees in environmental justice work today.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and policy expert who promotes environmental justice and coastal care in communities in New York and elsewhere. She does this through policy and organizing, event curation, and strategy consulting. She is founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm whose goal is to help non-profits, companies, and philanthropies find new and better ways to advance ocean conservation. She also holds appointments as a science scholar at Pioneer Works and an adjunct professor at NYU.
Tell us about your work in ocean conversation and how it relates to environmental justice.
The work of Ocean Collectiv is grounded in ocean justice. I think of environmental justice as a kind of broader version of that. How do we make sure that one group of people is not disproportionately exposed to environmental toxins or lacking access to nature? How are we making sure that everyone has equal access to a clean and healthy environment? That same concept extends to the oceans.
There are equity and access issues that intersect with ocean conservation. It’s something people don’t often think about. For example, who gets to swim? Black and brown kids have a disproportionately high rate of drowning relative to white kids because they’re not taught to swim, they don’t have access to pools and beaches. Who can afford to go into ocean conservation? It’s a field that’s peppered with a need for unpaid internships and scuba certifications. Which communities are dealing with the most polluted waters and the labor violations of the fishing industry? All this is intertwined with how we manage oceans sustainably. It’s important to keep in mind who is getting the short end of the stick when it comes to both environmental degradation and conservation. That is a guiding principle of our work.
What gets lost in the conversation on ocean conservation is that so much of our culture is tied to the sea: the beach, the fish fry, the clam bake, the crawfish boil and so on. Access to the coast and the recreation and all the cultural vibrancy that’s supported by a healthy ocean is also at stake. How does a healthy ocean support our jobs, economies, livelihoods, our health and coastal cultures?
You are an adjunct professor at NYU teaching on urban ocean conservation. How does teaching about ocean conservation complement your work?
We often think of ocean conservation as coral reefs or whales and tropical islands — things that are far away from where huge numbers of people live — but that is ridiculous. In America, 40 percent of people live in coastal counties and most of those people live in cities. We need to think about cities when we think about ocean conservation. What we do along the coast really matters.
I’ve been using New York City as a case study to really dig in and discuss what an ideal relationship between an ocean and a city looks like in terms of equity, access, fishing, protected areas, infrastructure, and also, most urgently, how we deal with sea level rise and restoring coastal ecosystems like wetlands, mangroves, marshes, or sand dunes. It’s interesting for me intellectually, and as a Brooklyn native, to think about NYC as an archipelago of a few dozen islands and that the Hudson River is salty as far north as Poughkeepsie sometimes. The East River is actually just the connection between Long Island Sound and New York Harbor. It’s not actually a river. I love that our ferry system is expanding. People are really starting to face out from the shore and interact with the water in a new way. It’s an exciting time to be back in NYC as a marine biologist!
What led you into working in ocean sustainability?
I, like most people who end up doing marine science, had this childhood love affair with the ocean. I visited the Florida Keys, I went on a glass bottom boat, I saw a coral reef, and I went to the aquarium and held a sea urchin in my hand — and I was completely enamored with everything. I learned to swim and snorkel and then I learned that marine biologist was a job, so of course I wanted that to be my job. The longer story, though, is that there were a lot of other things that I was interested in, but I realized that ocean conservation is actually a way to combine all of them. There’s the science part but there’s also policy and economics and sociology, and it’s just a crazy puzzle that requires problem-solving.
It’s so cool that you had a childhood dream and you’re living it! What is something that you’re really focused on right now?
Overall, I’m really focused on building community around solutions. That is at the root of all the work I do. At Ocean Collectiv, we help our clients build partnerships and community to further their missions. With some colleagues I started Team Ocean NYC, a quarterly gathering of ocean professionals in New York, so people can share what they’re working on and build collaborations.
At Pioneer Works, we’re curating and hosting this ‘Science and Society’ series and thinking about the large issues that we’re grappling with as humans on this planet. What does the future of seafood look like? What’s happening on the high seas and with plastics? What are the scientific and social issues around our climate crisis? All these disparate topics relate to how we interact with each other and the planet.
There’s a lot of value in gathering people to think more deeply about these big issues. Who has ideas about how to address with sea-level rise or overfishing or coastal cultures that needs to be in the room when these issues are being talked about? And there is a justice element in making sure many different perspectives are included and different voices have a seat at the table.
What is one success story or something that you’re really proud about with respect to helping the ocean?
The most recent thing is that Ocean Collectiv has been working with the Bezos Family Foundation on something called Ocean Challenge. They wanted to give out grants to local groups who were doing ocean education with a social justice focus. We, Ocean Collectiv, identified and vetted small, local organizations around the world that were doing this important work, whether that’s been teaching black kids to swim in South Africa who had never even been to the beach before, or organizing an art festival with fishermen in Peru, or supporting a science fair with the Billion Oyster Project here in New York City. It’s exciting to be able to support these small groups that no one’s heard of and put them onto the national and international stage.
So, where do you see expertise in regard to addressing today’s concerns around the oceans, such as seafood? What voices should be heard here?
Fishermen! They know more than I will ever know about the ocean. I’ll always ask a fisherman first. For my PhD dissertation, I interviewed hundreds of fishermen and scuba instructors. I just listened to their stories and wrote them down and tried to learn from them about the changes that they were seeing in ocean ecosystems, what problems they were identifying, what solutions that they thought were needed, and what policies they would they get behind. It was the most amazing learning experience, listening to people who were on or under the water every single day.
Helping to document the stories that would otherwise go untold or supporting local groups that would otherwise be under the radar is important, and anything that I can do to help elevate these voices and organizations is such an honor. I think a lot about who’s not at the table — what ideas, what perspectives, what backgrounds, what organizations, what cultures are not being represented — and how to bring them in so that we actually have a full diversity of ideas and possibilities at the table. As someone who cares about diversity in all its definitions — biologically, culturally, ethnically, racially, economically — I think that it’s important so that we can come up with good solutions. Without diversity we just don’t have enough ideas in the room.
The last question: if you could recommend one book on environmental justice or ocean sustainability, what would it be?
Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown. It’s amazing because she talks about how nature solves problems, and how biomimicry — asking what nature would do — can help us think about our human community and social justice and environmental campaigns. It’s a really thoughtful book loaded with valuable lessons about how we might iterate toward a better relationship with each other and the planet.
This interview was conducted by Meredith Smith and Rachel Kirk as part of a series that explores how climate change and environmental challenges alter current and potential conflicts in the world.