How to Use the Ocean Without Using it Up

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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