6 Lessons for Effective Science-based Ocean Conservation

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a founding partner for the World Ocean Festival, as well as, organizer for the March for Science. Seeing so much excitement and enthusiasm for science at the March a few weeks ago, we thought we'd bring back one of her posts originally posted in the Ocean Views section of National Geographic relating science and Ocean conservation.


Ocean conservation is hard. You fight the challenges of “out of sight, out of mind,” of largely unregulated high seas, and of waters so vast people find it hard to believe humans could actually overfish it (or as the saying goes in Jamaica, “fish can’t done”).

The ocean is indeed in deep deep trouble due to overfishing, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, and good science is needed to turn that around. This science doesn’t need to be fancy, expensive, or complicated. Rather, it needs to be thoughtful, targeted, and inclusive.

Here are six lessons I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) during my first decade of studying and working in ocean science and conservation that I wish I’d known from the very beginning.

Local and foreign scientists collaborating on conch research. (Photo courtesy Waitt Institute)

Local and foreign scientists collaborating on conch research. (Photo courtesy Waitt Institute)

Local and foreign scientists collaborating on conch research. (Photo courtesy Waitt Institute)

1. It’s not about what *you* want

Too often foreign conservationists enter a country with preconceived notions of what should be preserved and how (“you should establish a marine protected area here!”). This approach is often met with little cooperation or enthusiasm from the local government and community.

Instead, as my colleagues and I documented in a recent paper, ocean science needs to be based on stronger collaborations between foreign and local scientists, with an emphasis on (1) aligning priorities, (2) building long-term relationships, (3) enhancing local capacity, and (4) sharing research products.

2. Don’t forget about the social sciences

Ocean conservation is not really about managing fish – it’s about managing human behavior. Fish would be swimming around and making babies just fine without us. So sociology, anthropology, psychology, and economics have important roles to play in navigating complex cultural dynamics, subtexts, motivations, and historical context.

During my PhD research, I conducted almost 400 one-on-one socio-economic interviews with fishers and scuba instructors to develop a deeper understanding of their concerns, priorities, and what they see as the way forward. The value of local and traditional knowledge is immense, and social science allows us to tap into many good ideas people have but no one has ever asked them about, see where consensus lies, and support development of conservation measures that are locally-appropriate.

3. “It’s the economy, stupid”

New ocean policies designed for long-term conservation benefits often have short-term economic costs. And those costs (e.g., restricting fishing) are often born by those least able to shoulder it. Even if local citizens want to support conservation, they can’t afford to support policies that make it more difficult to put food on the table.

Science-based conservation needs to include economics in general, and behavioral economics in particular. Understanding the relationships between people’s financial situation and their support for various ocean policies can help find ways to bridge the gap between short-term costs and long-term benefits of conservation. Otherwise, poverty can hinder conservation.

4. Keep it simple

Fancy mathematical models, big scientific expeditions, and observation satellites can all be useful, but often the solutions can be much simpler. Reducing reliance on advanced and expensive technologies also makes it more likely that local researchers and resource managers can continue the data collection and monitoring work in the long-term, even with scarce funding.

For example, in 2008, I documented a simple solution for the problem that fish traps were catching lots of small fish no one wanted to eat (AKA bycatch). If you just put a rectangular slot in the corner (made with $1.00 worth of metal rebar) juveniles and narrow-bodied species can escape, but the targeted groupers and snappers stay in. (Here’s a fun cartoon that explains this.) It’s a win-win where fishers don’t lose any money, and fishing becomes more sustainable.

5. It’s not just about protected areas

Knowing how to design an effective protected area is extremely valuable, but creating marine reserves is often a political challenge and not a scientific one. We need a broader diversity of both natural and social science, and more interdisciplinary science about how to successfully implement other management measures (e.g., gear-based management of fishing).

Ocean conservation needs science about food security, climate change, historical trends, and basic research on what is actually working. There are a lot of solutions out there, so we need to consider a broader array of them and have the research to back up when, where, and why each one is appropriate. 

6. Tell people about the science

Many policy makers and politicians don’t have extensive scientific training, and that’s fine. They also don’t have the time to dig through the scientific literature for gems that will inform their decision-making. It’s up to scientists to tell people about their research and what it implies needs to be done for conservation.

Research must be distilled for the general public, presented, and discussed with policymakers – press releases, blogseditorials, social media, films, and direct conversations. Otherwise, all that good data and those many hours will result in scientific publications simply collecting dust.

Two Foot Bay, Barbuda. (Photo courtesy Waitt Institute)

Two Foot Bay, Barbuda. (Photo courtesy Waitt Institute)


We'd love to see you at the World Ocean Festival and Ocean March on June 4th! #saveourocean