Why We Need The World Ocean Festival Now More Than Ever

Photo: Courtesy of Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.
It didn't take long for the Trump administration to make its views on science known — especially climate science. The EPA's website no longer features a climate science page (it now redirects to an "energy independence" page). And just this week the administration officially announced the plan to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. So, for better or for worse, it's the perfect time to celebrate our oceans and encourage those in power to fight for them at this weekend's World Ocean Festival in NYC.
The festival kicks off with the Ocean March (a parade of boats along Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts) and continues with a slew of events on Governors Island. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, a marine biologist, conservation expert, and science advisor to the festival tells us she's organized a lineup of four panels for the festival. They'll cover coral reefs, plastic pollution, fishing, and the conservation programs that are already making huge changes here in NYC.
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We spoke with Dr. Johnson about the festival, what's already working in ocean conservation, and how activism is changing in the scientific community.
Can you tell me a bit about the idea behind the World Ocean Festival?
"The message is that a lot of people care about the ocean and we all depend on it. The aim is to raise this collective voice for ocean conservation while these world leaders are gathering at the UN Ocean Conference to say, 'We care about this, all these organizations, companies, non-profits, artists, academics, and scientists all care about this, here’s what we know is working, and we support you in finding solutions. We’re on your team, and we’re here to help educate and amplify the good news of what’s actually effective and share those stories.'"

It takes everybody to solve problems this large — and that’s the really exciting part.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Phd
What are the most effective conservation strategies we have right now?
"The most effective strategies are ones that involve the people who are affected by the problems, whether that's thinking about how communities want to create marine protected areas or how they want to manage fishing in a way that respects their cultural heritage but is also sustainable. More and more corporations are getting involved with figuring out how to reduce plastic pollution, for example.
"We’ll be highlighting those efforts at the World Ocean Festival as well. It takes everybody to solve problems this large and that’s the really exciting part — all the collaborations that are emerging between conservation groups, scientists, corporations, and governments to figure out what’s best for each community and country."
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What role do large cities such as NYC play in this?
"Urban ocean conservation is the next big challenge for ocean management. A lot of people have been focused on remote islands, asking 'How can we create protected areas and preserve the most pristine places?' But more and more people are living on the coast and in cities. And this is something I think about a lot, especially as a Brooklyn native who never thought of herself as living on 'the coast' or about my life affecting the ocean. It's a really important message to be bringing to NYC, and that's why we're so excited to be working so closely working with the Mayor’s Office as well."
What sorts of conservation projects have been successful in NYC?
"The panelists represent different aspects of [what's working in NYC]. We have a member of Surfrider, a grassroots coalition started by surfers all around the world. They're working on reducing or preventing pollution and coastal development issues... They have been really active in New York with several campaigns, including thinking about offshore dredging and the impact on water quality and recreation off of Long Island.
"The other example is the New York Harbor School, which is a public school on Governor's Island that focuses on coastal education and building the maritime skills of the next generation. The Billion Oyster Project is their signature program, which aims to put a billion oysters back in New York harbor (which used to have many more than that). Oysters are really important because they filter and clean the water, but they also provide a buffer from storms like Hurricane Sandy. Restaurants all around the city use their old oyster shells as part of restoration efforts and other schools get involved, so it's been really beautiful to see that flourish around NYC as a really hands on way of improving the environment.
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Nature is quite resilient, but we have to give it a chance.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Phd
"The third is the New York Aquarium, which is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Their director will be on the panel talking about the research they’ve been doing around New York on sharks and whales. NYC waters are cleaner than they’ve been in 100 years, and people don't know that. So we have some good stories to tell: We have seahorses living under piers in the Hudson River, we have these huge schools of menhaden fish, and whales are coming back to feed on those. The good news is that, if we do take the important but sometimes difficult steps to reduce pollution, then recovery is very possible. Nature is quite resilient, but we have to give it a chance. There are lots of New York stories and we’re excited to share some of those and hopefully inspire others."
You were also one of the organizers for the March for Science. How do you see the role of activism evolving in science?
"I never thought of myself as an activist, I just thought of myself as someone who really cared about making the world a livable, beautiful, and healthy place. So we’re definitely in this moment where scientists need to start speaking up when they see things that are really not okay.
"For me, my involvement in the March for Science stemmed from seeing government data sets being threatened with deletion, or actually disappearing from websites, and scientists getting censored. I thought, That's pretty crazy to just ignore all this information we have, which should be the foundation of good policy decisions and is instead being completely ignored.
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We’re definitely in this moment where scientists need to start speaking up when they see things that are really not okay.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Phd
"That's true in the U.S., and it was the inspiration for March for Science, that it's time for scientists to say, 'No no, we have something really important to add to the decision making process. We have all this information that we’ve gathered that's been verified and double checked, and you should use this — this is a good thing that we can make informed decisions.'
"The same is certainly true for ocean management around the world. So there's a definite connection between the March for Science and the Ocean March and UN Ocean Conference — they [are all opportunities] to think about the role that science can play as part of policy making.
"So it's really exciting to have this moment professionally where everything seems to be coming together around science, policy making, communication, and people becoming more vocal about the need for those things to be intertwined. I’m really excited for the potential for NYC to become more of a hub for thought leadership on ocean conservation and an example of how cities can get ocean conservation right."
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