Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is on a mission to find sustainable solutions for problems that affect oceans and coastal communities.
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego graduate, along with fellow conservationist Tim McClanahan, is this year’s recipient of the global Solution Search prize sponsored by Rare, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean sustainability, in association with the National Geographic Society. Johnson won for her research creating a low-tech solution to reduce accidental trapping of untargeted fish known as bycatch while preserving the livelihoods of fishermen in the Caribbean.
Johnson grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Like many children, she first fell in love with marine life as a little girl visiting aquariums with her parents. However, unlike most children whose weekend visits to aquariums amount to just a day out with parents, Johnson’s visits to aquariums propelled her into a passionate journey of marine conservation.
“I would not be doing what I do if I did not love the ocean,” said Johnson.
In 2011, Rare announced “Solution Search: Turning the Tide for Coastal Fisheries,” a contest to recognize conservation success stories around the world. Johnson and McClanahan put forward their solution, “Bycatch Escape Gaps for Fish Traps in Curaçao and Kenya” —describing an elegant alteration of fishing traps that reduces bycatch by around 80 percent.
Johnson received her PhD in marine biology from Scripps in 2011. She started investigating the idea of how to reduce the bycatch associated with fish traps during her graduate student years at Scripps. Johnson has focused on addressing issues that lay at the intersection of socioeconomics and ocean conservation in developing countries.
Fishermen build traps to capture high-value fish such as groupers and snappers, but they also capture juveniles of non-targeted species such as parrotfish that enter traps but cannot exit. Many of the juvenile fish killed in such traps have little or no market value, but are herbivores extremely important for the ecological health of the ocean.
Johnson’s solution was to retrofit traps with vertical, rectangular escape gaps that allow narrow-bodied, compressible fish to escape. Her research demonstrated that escape gaps are a low-cost, low-tech solution to increase fishery selectivity and sustainability. In fact, Johnson’s research in Curaçao, which was replicated by McClanahan in Kenya, showed that traps fitted with gaps reduced bycatch up to 80 percent, without reducing (and potentially increasing) catch value.
“We plan to continue working with fishermen to expand the number of locations where escape gaps are used,” said Johnson. “In the long term, we hope escape gaps are used in coral reef trap fisheries all over the world.”
Johnson’s proposal was one of the ten finalists chosen from more than 100 entries by a review panel of ocean conservation experts. By popular voting, Johnson’s proposal was declared the winner on Jan. 6. The runners-up were Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery in Canada and the Misool Baseftin Foundation in Indonesia. The winners received their awards at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on February 8.
“I was thrilled to win this award, and I hope that any publicity gained will help to spread this idea for making fishing with traps more sustainable,” Johnson said. “Ocean conservation seems like a daunting problem, but the solutions can be simple.”
At present, Johnson is the Director of Science and Solutions for the Waitt Foundation in Washington D.C.
– Atreyee Bhattacharya has a Ph.D. in earth science from Harvard University and is a visiting student at the Geosciences Research Division at Scripps