6 Inspiring Women Changing the Conversation on Oceans

Did you know that oceans are critical to the livelihoods of 40 percent of the world’s population? Well they are! In addition, the ocean holds 50 times more carbon than our atmosphere, making it an essential carbon sink and provider of oxygen. All of this is to say that our oceans are both amazing and underappreciated. The good news is there are women paving the way to a world where oceans and their constituents are truly valued and protected. Here are 6 activists making waves in marine science and policy:

1. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

If you were following the 2020 election, you may have noticed Senator Elizabeth Warren talk about the need for a blue new deal. The woman behind the policy is Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and podcast host. Johnson, who stands apart in her science communication work, has an infectious love of learning and planet. Her passion for advocacy comes through in her anthology book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (highly, highly recommend!) and its sister project which supports women climate leaders. Her co-hosted podcast, How to Save a Planet, explores solutions to the climate crisis. In all these platforms, she highlights coastal communities and the need for ocean justice.

Outside of science communication to the public, Johnson can be found chasing innovation. She is the founder of an ocean policy think tank called Urban Ocean Lab and serves on the boards of 9 other nonprofits, collectives, and foundations. This woman has a vision for the future of our oceans and I am here for it. Her Instagram is @ayanaeliza

2. Veta Wade

Like Johnson, Veta Wade is working on policy that establishes a blue economy. What is a blue economy? “The sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health,” according to the World Bank. Basically, helping communities thrive alongside our oceans. Wade is based in the Caribbeans and is a world leader in marine conservation. As a small island inhabitant, all of Wade’s work is centered on environmental justice and community-building. Her nonprofit Fish ‘N Fins was established to teach children to be curious about the ocean through swimming and snorkeling lessons. The organization works to develop community engagement with citizen science and create leaders in ocean advocacy and marine innovation. I love this project because one of the application requirements for its programs is to be “Borderline obsessed with the ocean!” 

Wade also takes her experience in law and ocean advocacy to an international scale, advising companies, NGOs, and governments on conservation policy. In 2020 she was a finalist for the Global Ocean Awards, which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to marine health, resources, and public engagement. Check Wade out on Instagram (@vetawade) to keep up her efforts on the island of Montserrat. 

3. Emily Stengel

Have you ever wondered what kelp tastes like? Well, Emily Stengel is working to bring it to your table through her work with GreenWave, a nonprofit for regenerative ocean farming. To have a blue and climate-neutral economy, agricultural systems in the United States need to change. Land agriculture at large damages our ecosystems through overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. In addition, we do not have enough land or freshwater to continue sustaining global populations without significant environmental degradation. In short, we need underwater farms! (Innovation is amazing.) As an expert in food industry management, Stengel is working to make sustainable livelihoods accessible to current and future ocean farmers. As we move to a greener future, ocean veg might become the new norm, and that’s a good thing -- if we do it in an equitable way.

An essay by Stengel is featured in All We Can Save, where she talks about her introduction to GreenWave and why she was so on board with its distinctly feminine approach to agriculture. “The challenges faced by our farming communities -- compounded by the growing doom and gloom of climate change -- felt insurmountable to me,” she writes in her featured piece Solutions at Sea. Her work building partnerships with public and private entities for ocean farming is the antithesis to despair. Learn more about how we get to a blue-green circular economy by following GreenWave on Instagram (@greenwaveorg).

4. Hannah Testa

Hannah Testa is only 18 years old, but she knows how important our oceans are to protect. In fact, Testa is on a mission to change school curriculum around the world to include the topic of ocean health. Her organization, Hannah4Change, advocates for corporations to adopt greener, ocean-friendly alternatives. She also has been working for policy change on single-use plastics. In 2020, she helped introduce the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which you can read more about here. Why the focus on plastics, you may ask? Plastics pose a serious risk to marine health, killing over 300,000 marine animals every year. By 2050 there will be more plastic in oceans than fish and 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastic.

Testa’s work doesn’t end with her advocacy efforts on the corporate and governmental levels; she is also an author. Her new illustrated book, Taking on the Plastics Crisis, tells her personal journey toward sustainability to inspire youth to join a grassroots movement for change. Follow her work on Instagram (@hannah4change). 

5. Danni Washington

An educator, TV personality, marine biologist, and self-proclaimed mocha mermaid, Danni Washington is all about interactive science communication. She uses her platform to get young audiences excited about STEM and inspired to advocate for our seas. “As we face challenges like climate change and ocean pollution, it's important that we create a real connection and clear line of communication between the general public and the science community,” says Washington on her website. Notably, she is the first Black woman to host an American science show. Catch her CBS’s Mission Unstoppable, XPLORATION Nature Knows Best, and Science the $#*! Out of It. 

In addition to her TV productions and public speaking events, Washington campaigns for a plastic-free ocean through her activist organization The Big Blue & You, which utilizes art as a force for change. Keep up-to-date with this Miami-based woman in STEM by following her on Instagram (@danniwashington).

6. Cristina Mittermeier

Mexican-born marine biologist Cristinia Mittermeier tells the story of the oceans through my favorite medium: photography. In fact, Mittermeier is one of the most influential conservation photographers in the world. Mittermeier’s work highlights our human connection to nature and our responsibility to other species. Through her lens, there is a sense of intimacy and kinship with the wildlife and people that rely on marine ecosystems. 

Mittermeier also brings visual storytelling to SeaLegacy, an organization she co-founded. SeaLegacy tells the story of threats and solutions to create literacy on ocean issues. “Perhaps the most important thing we strive for is the building of a community around these issues,” says Mittermeier on her website. Check out Mittermeier on Instagram (@mitty), where she is the first female photographer to reach 1M followers. She also recently participated in the Smithsonian Conservation Commons Marine Conservation in Action webinar, which you can check out here.

Our oceans make up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. This makes them a super important resource for biodiversity conservation and in efforts against global climate change. Take notes from these women fighting for ocean representation and remember that our oceans do a lot for us, so we should do a lot for them.