Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Executive Director at the Waitt Institute

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is an award-winning marine biologist and the Executive Director of the Waitt Institute. Johnson travels the world to collect, create, and amplify the best ideas in ocean conservation. Her work is in ensuring healthy ecosystems and sustainable seafood for the approximately one billion people who depend on the ocean for the their nutrition, livelihoods, and cultures.

Johnson leads the Blue Halo Initiative, through which the Waitt Institute has partnered with the Caribbean governments and communities of Barbuda, Montserrat and Curaçao to support the envisioning, design, and realization of sustainable ocean management for each island. Johnson developed the Institute’s model for this comprehensive, science-based, community-driven approach, and plans are in place to replicate similar comprehensive ocean management initiatives around the Caribbean and the world.

Expansively multi-disciplinarily in her approach, Johnson draws from sociology, economics, marketing, and psychology in addition to ecology. She holds a marine biology Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she grappled holistically with sustainably managing coral reefs. She conducted extensive ecological (350+ SCUBA dives) and socioeconomic (400+ stakeholder interviews) fieldwork on Curaçao and Bonaire. Her research proved that bycatch (i.e. unwanted, wasted catch) could be reduced by 80% without reducing catch value. This discovery won her the prized Rare/National Geographic Solution Search competition. Her work also showed that behavioral economics principles influence stakeholders’ views on resource management. Advised by Dr. Jeremy Jackson, she graduated in 2011 with a dissertation entitled “Fish, Fishing, Diving and the Management of Coral Reefs.

Johnson is a native of Brooklyn, NY. She is the daughter of a retired teacher/current farmer and a retired architect/current potter. She was co-chair emeritus of the Artisanal Fisheries Research Network at Scripps, is a member of the Summit Series community, sings jazz, and instigates dance parties. 

Johnson is just as often interviewing fishermen, as she is SCUBA divingmeeting with diplomats, or blogging for National Geographic.