Lonely Conservationists

Ana (For the Sea)

Written by Ana Willett

I think out of anyone, I understand impostor syndrome on such a deeply profound level it’s disturbing.

My name is Ana Willett, and I am a marine conservation policy contractor. There…for lack of better phrasing, is not a lot of work in this field in the D.C. area. You either have to have a PhD (I don’t, I have a Master’s), or you have to know someone. It leaves a lot to be desired when all you want to do is make an impact and save our seas. It makes it difficult, with such a desire to protect, to feel stuck and unable to do much at all when there are opportunities that seem to skip by you.

I have always loved the sea—desperately. Immensely. It has always felt like it has called to me, whispering a siren’s song of “help me” and “protect me” from its coastlines when I would go to the beach as a child. I would, as silly as it sounds, go sit at the edge of the shore, letting the waves lap at my feet, and idly chat with the ocean as if she were an old friend of mine. When I was five, a fisherman had caught a baby shark off the Rodanthe Pier in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I was so horrified that he was not going to release it back, and treated that poor shark as trophy, that I begged my mother to ask him to release it to the sea. He did, and I’m fairly certain it was because there was a five-year-old who wouldn’t stop crying.

I grew older and my love of the sea remained. Eventually, I went to college, studying international affairs and World Languages with a focus in conservation policy and Romance languages. My university, up in the mountains of West Virginia, definitely did not have the course scheduling for me to truly pursue my love of marine conservation, but diligent as my professors were, they found a way to make it work for me.

When I had graduated from undergrad in 2016, we had just had the upheaval of a lifetime. Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States—the EPA was ripped to shreds along with my post-grad opportunity with them, anything remotely akin to conservation policy jobs were swept away as quickly as the tide goes in and out.

So I went back to school. And then after two years I was still struggling to find a job in my field or even somewhat close to my field. It wasn’t until 2019 that I was hired by a small nonprofit in Washington, D.C. to do something nowhere near what my background is. But I needed a job, desperately. So I took it. And I’m still there.

But what was earning me money was left me deeply unsatisfied, unhappy, and feeling as if I had failed; I wasn’t doing the work I was born to do, I wasn’t writing policy briefs on marine protected areas or on how osprey migration patterns have shifted in the past five years—due in part to a change in Chesapeake Bay conservation policies in Maryland.

I felt, and still do feel, stuck. So I took up contracting as a moonlighting side gig. There, too, is not a lot of work in contracting in Washington, D.C. Occasionally, I’ll get a request to review policies on marine protected areas, usually for large corporations. But again, it leaves me feeling desperately unsatisfied and unhappy with what I’m doing.

The point of this is, is that I know I’m a specialist in marine conservation policy. I know my talents will be needed somewhere, somehow, someway. And whether I find that opportunity today or in five years, I know I will still love the sea, still have a deep, immense desire to protect it, and continue to fight for it, even if it’s not in the way that I imagined.

If, for the time being, my fight for our coastlines and waterways is held to me doing monthly beach clean ups, oyster planting in the Chesapeake Bay, and volunteering with local nonprofits that advocate for our seas and waterways, then so be it. I know, as long as I keep chipping away, that I will make it.

Despite all these hiccups, despite the ups and downs, the hurt and frustration, what we do is remarkable. We’re warriors and advocates for our Earth—and we only have one. If we don’t fight for it, who will?

For more of Ana, check out @msawillett on Instagram

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