Waitt Institute Overview

Collaborating with local governments and coastal communities…


Waitt InstituteWaitt Institute

The Waitt Institute endeavors to ensure ecologically, economically, and culturally sustainable use of ocean resources, for this and future generations. The Institute collaborates with local governments and coastal communities to design comprehensive, data-driven ocean zoning and fisheries management strategies. Our approach engages stakeholders, benefits coastal livelihoods, and restores fish populations and habitats. The Institute provides technical expertise in marine ecology, mapping, policy, law, socioeconomics, and communications, and works with local organizations to build capacity for effective implementation and long-term success.

Key Staff

ayana-johnson-headshot_cropped-2.jpgAyana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Programs and Strategy

yana is a marine biologist with a Ph.D. from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She has a particular interest in holistic approaches to sustainable management of ocean resources the incorporate ecology, economics, and sociology. Joining the foundation in 2012, she spends a majority of her time on the road with the mission to collect, curate, actualize, and amplify the best ideas in ocean conservation. Her primary motivation is ensuring sustainable seafood for the approximately one billion people in developing countries who depend on the ocean for the their nutrition and livelihoods. She has a BA from Harvard University in Environmental Science and Public Policy, and has worked on ocean policy at NOAA and the EPA. You can find out more about her research on her website, and follow her adventures in ocean conservation on her National Geographic blog.

dominique-rissolo_1.jpgDominique Rissolo, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Operations

Dr. Dominique Rissolo is an archaeologist with field experience in the United States and Latin America. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. in anthropology, with an emphasis in archaeology, from the University of California, Riverside, and received his B.A. in anthropology, with a minor in geological sciences, from San Diego State University. Prior to coming to the Waitt Institute, Dominique’s primary interest has been in the rise of social complexity in the northern Maya lowlands and the development of ancient maritime trade networks along the Yucatan coast. His research on the Yucatan Peninsula has also focused on ancient Maya cave use as well as coastal and near-coastal settlement patterns and ecosystems. Throughout his fieldwork, Dominique has been active in local indigenous issues and involved the development of sustainable heritage resource management strategies. Dominique has published extensively on these and other topics in various journals including the Journal of Ethnobiology and the Journal of Anthropological Research. Recently published book chapters can be found in Lifeways in the Lowlands, Quintana Roo Archaeology, and In the Maw of the Earth Monster. He has also presented numerous research papers at national and international conferences. Prior to joining the Waitt Institute, Dominique taught anthropology and archaeology at San Diego State University where he is currently an adjunct professor. He has also taught courses and worked closely with students at the University of California, San Diego. Dominique is a Research Associate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is director of the Yalahau Archaeological Cave Survey, co-director of Proyecto Costa Escondida, and associate director of the Yalahau Regional Human Ecology Project. He is a Registered Professional Archaeologist and is an active member of the American Anthropological Association, the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Nautical Archaeology Society.

mike-dessner.jpgMichael Dessner
Logistics and Communications Manager

Michael Dessner grew up in Cedar Falls and studied at the University of Iowa. He served 4 years in the US Army as an Air Defense Artilleryman and was honorably discharged in 1988. In 1992, Michael began working in the salmon fisheries and has lived and worked on the water ever since. He spent 12 years working and managing nearly every position related to Alaskan fisheries, from processor and deckhand in the Bering Sea to serving as buyer and station manager in the Alaskan deep water ports of Homer and Seward. Michael began working for the Waitt Institute in 2005. He is a sonar analyst and scuba diver and is currently honing his skills as an ROV and submersible pilot. An avid outdoorsman, his interests include art, literature, film and most anything having to do with water.

joe-lepore.jpgJoe Lepore
Dive Safety and Field Science Manager

Joseph Lepore serves as the Waitt Institute’s Dive Safety Officer and oversees all deck operations during missions of discovery. He grew up in Ronkonkoma, New York where he joined the US Navy in 1986. He served his country with distinction and honor for twenty years before retiring as a Master Chief Petty Officer and Master Diver in 2006, after which he joined the Waitt Institute team. He completed the Navy’s schools for 2nd Class Diver and 1st Class Diver, as well as the schools for Salvage, Construction and Demolition Diving. During his service, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, 6 Meritorious Service Medals, 4 Navy Commendation Medals and 4 Navy Achievement Medals. In his spare time he enjoys boating, fishing and diving. He currently resides in North Carolina with his wife and two children.


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