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EWG’s Women of Courage: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Thursday, October 9, 2014


Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Executive Director of Waitt Institute

What does it take for a small Caribbean nation to implement strong, sustainable and popular ocean conservation practices?  A team of experts, an island community dedicated to preserving its way of life and one dynamic activist, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Last month, Barbuda signed new laws protecting its reefs and preserving fisheries for generations to come. The Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative led by Johnson and supported by the Waitt Foundation was instrumental in getting the law passed. As the executive director of the Waitt Institute, Johnson launched the Barbuda Blue Halo project last year and has been its guiding force ever since.

I interviewed this inspiring environmental leader a few weeks after the Barbuda Council signed the new regulations.

Johnson’s commitment to environmentalism began when she was young child.  She says her father hated walking her to school in Brooklyn because “I had to stop and look at every plant, every fallen leaf and every crocus coming up.”  On a family trip to the Florida Keys, Johnson says, “I saw the reef for the first time, saw an electric eel shoot off sparks and I thought oh my goodness I want to study this for my job.”

She was inspired by great environmental leaders like Rachel Carson and Erin Brockovich but none more than her own mother, Louise Maher-Johnson, a public school teacher in Brooklyn for 37 years. Maher-Johnson now runs two small organic, permaculture farms in upstate New York.  

“Watching her adapt to nature and not the other way around has been a great role model for me,” Johnson says.  She believes her own role isn’t “about managing nature but managing human interactions with it.”

In order to pursue her childhood dream, Ayana earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard with a concentration in environmental science and public policy. She considered becoming an environmental lawyer but decided that marine biology was more fun. She earned a Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in marine biology.   Now she often spends her days near the ocean rather than in an office building.

Working closely with the Barbuda Council, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbuda Fisheries Division, and the Codrington Lagoon Park, Johnson conducted the scientific research needed to accurately target crucial areas for protection and played a key role in balancing interests and striking compromises. The new regulations attempt to strike a balance that considers conservation, the fishing industry and cultural traditions

For example, the regulations still allow for line fishing in a lagoon filled with mangroves and let kids fish off the pier after school.  Ideally, fishing in the lagoon should be banned because it is a key nursery habitat for important fishery species.  But Johnson understood that Barbudans attached great cultural significance to fishing there. She thought that allowing only line fishing would not damage the habitat or seriously undermine fish populations.  Johnson hopes these compromises between hard science and cultural tradition will bring about long-lasting, effective change that will benefit all members of Barbudan society. 

What can Americans do to contribute to Johnson’s important work?   Start eating only sustainable seafood. For Johnson -- it’s a simple decision.  If you want to eat in a sustainable manner, eat lower on the food chain. 

“Eating tuna or salmon is really inefficient,” she says.  Besides, those big predatory fish accumulate heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Johnson prefers to eat sardines and anchovies, because they are small and reproduce quickly, and farmed shellfish, which are filter feeders that remove excess nutrients from the water.

For more advice on sustainable and healthy seafood choices, check out EWG’s Consumer Guide to Seafood

Johnson says people can help protect the ocean by reducing their plastic consumption.  “A lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, whether it be plastic microbeads from body wash or plastic grocery bags,” she says.  “A lot of that is getting incorporated into the food chain.”

And next time you go on a beach vacation, choose an eco-friendly resort and take more photographs than bites of fish.

To learn more about Johnson’s work, check out her blog and the Barbuda Blue Halo Project webpage, and read her OpEd in The New York Times, “We Can Save Coral Reefs.”

Click here to see EWG’s Consumer Guide to Seafood Guide and EWG’s Seafood Calculator.



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