ayanaelizabeth's blog

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We have a lot of data about the ocean, but much of it is in obscure databases – unintegrated, unanalyzed, and largely inaccessible for the public. There is so much we could do with all that information if it was easy to visualize and interpret. At our fingertips, we could have alerts about the presence of water pollution and jellyfish at beaches. We could track seafood and make sure it is fresh, sustainable, and the supply chain is free of the human rights violations that currently proliferate. We could have an early warning system for ocean acidification, before it decimates oyster aquaculture.

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Given the election, it seems wise to relinquish expectations of US federal leadership on ocean or climate policy. Our anti-science (among other deeply concerning antis) president-elect and his appointees have sent clear signals about their disregard for our environment and the ethos of sustainability. Yet, a healthy ocean is critical to food security, a stable climate, and the livelihoods and cultures of coastal communities around the globe.

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Human well-being and human rights are inextricably tied to the health of the ocean, yet ocean conservation work is often isolated. Last month, as the United National General Assembly focused on tackling the grand challenges represented by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both the ocean goal (aka Goal 14, “Life Under Water”) and me, as a marine biologist, were a bit lonely.

At one event, guests were asked to put a sticker on their name tag indicating the goal they most supported. Of course, I chose the ocean goal: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” And until a colleague arrived, I was the only one representing the ocean. What was supposed to be a conversation starter turned me into a wallflower. It was a poignant reminder of how misunderstood and marginalized ocean conservation issues often are — and to our global detriment.

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The U.S. Department of State is set to host the third annual Our Ocean conference this week. This gathering of political leaders, philanthropists, scientists, diplomats, NGO executives, filmmakers, and private sector leaders, will be focused on the themes of marine protected areas, climate change, sustainable fisheries, and marine pollution. Many of us in the ocean conservation and policy community are awaiting the outcomes of this meeting with baited breath. 

Perhaps the greatest value of the previous conferences is that they served as a deadline and platform for launching important new initiatives for ocean conservation. And given the dire and worsening state of our ocean, commitment to bold actions are sorely needed. 

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Overfishing, climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution remain major threats to the world’s ocean. But amidst all that there is some seriously good ocean conservation news worth celebrating. So, to continue the tradition started last year with listing 14 Ocean Conservation Wins of 2014, here’s a rundown for 2015 that will hopefully fill you with #OceanOptimism. These wins represent the diligent efforts of organizations and individuals too numerous to list, so let’s just start with a blanket shoutout to all of #TeamOcean for a great year.

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Local conservation efforts are important to restoring and protecting coral reefs. However, if we don’t halt climate change those efforts will not be enough to save them. That’s why marine biologists and ocean lovers have their eyes on the COP 21 climate negotiations in Paris this week.

Last year, I co-authored a New York Times op-ed entitled “We Can Save the Caribbean’s Coral Reefs.” The premise was that we must not use inaction on global emissions reductions as an excuse to postpone local conservation actions. Dr. Jeremy Jackson and I wrote, “We need to stop all forms of overfishing, establish large and effectively enforced marine protected areas, and impose strict regulations on coastal development and pollution, while at the same time working to reduce fossil fuel emissions driving climate change.”

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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.

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To be effective, marine conservation must be based on rigorous and targeted science. The large and growing threats to ocean ecosystems — overfishing, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction — coupled with the limited scientific capacity of most small island states make science-based management not only an imperative, but also a challenge. Here’s one part of the solution: better global collaboration between local and foreign scientists.

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Two and a half years ago, the Waitt Institute launched the Blue Halo Initiative, through which we partner with governments and communities as they envision, design, and implement sustainable ocean management for their waters. In the time since, we supported the Caribbean island of Barbuda in passing meaningful legislation that zones the island’s entire coastal waters and protects 33 percent of them in marine reserves. This year we began working with the islands of Montserrat and Curaçao.

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Policy change, even at its most efficient, is often difficult and slow. This can be especially true for conservation policy, which often involves curtailing private sector business practices. On the flip side, the policymaking process can be sped up by clear public support. That’s why the recent consensus between the Caribbean fishing and SCUBA diving communities is so important – both groups understand that their coral reefs and fisheries are in serious trouble. 

Over the past 45 years, Caribbean coral cover has declined by more than half. Fish populations have plummeted due to overfishing. Fishermen are having a hard time making a living. Meanwhile, SCUBA tourism has increased dramatically. It’s evident to locals who derive their livelihoods from the sea that the ocean ecosystem on which they’ve traditionally relied is deteriorating rapidly.

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