One of Melissa Garren’s earliest memories of the ocean is going bodysurfing with her father and feeling both in awe and terrified of the powerful waves. She has long since overcome her fear of the ocean, but not her fascination with it.
As a marine biologist, the ocean has become her life’s work, spurring her on to lead conservation efforts through the development of innovative technology. It’s on this basis that she recently founded Working Ocean Strategies, a consultancy that helps organisations amplify their positive social and environmental impact on coastal communities.
“I work to put technology in service of humanity and the environment,” Melissa says from her home in California. Ultimately, it’s always to serve a community, the scientist adds. Armed with multiple degrees, a doctorate and two decades of experience, her knowledge is extensive. When she meets a client, often a science organisation, she listens to what they want to achieve and tries to figure out how technology could help with that. “Some of it is scoping the world of possibility,” she explains. In the process she might decode complex language, such as writing a technical spec. The aim is to take ideas and narrow them down to concrete steps.
It’s an approach she’s used before, most notably at Pelagic Data Systems, the company she co-founded in 2014. Here, she developed a solution for tracking small fishing vessels at sea. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly half of the global seafood supply is coming from small-scale fishers, but their impact was mostly ignored until recently. A huge challenge to arise as a result is IUU or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. “If you don’t know how much people are fishing, or where they’re fishing or anything about that, there’s no way to help put a sustainable management plan in place, because it’s totally dark on the radar,” she points out. “So we figured out how to harness the power of data.”
The solar-powered vessel-tracking system identifies patterns of human behaviour that can damage the health of oceans, with the tracker providing information such as a boat’s location and catch methods. About 95% of global fishing fleets had previously not had access to this type of technology, but the picture is changing. Melissa feels that the coming decade has us on a path toward measurable improvement in the percentage of the global fleet carrying tracking onboard. By filling in the data gaps on small-scale fisheries, Pelagic Data Systems can complement efforts to combat IUU and contribute to the rise of sustainable fishing communities.
Her work at PDS led to recognition from the National Geographic Society and a $150,000 prize. “My brain really enjoys putting the science and technology together with the social and environmental impacts as a cause and effect piece,” she tells Invest for Good. “But that business mechanism of how you get that done in a financially sustainable way is the type of puzzle I really like to chew on.”
With broad-based experience, Melissa is no stranger to figuring out the solutions to complex problems. Her doctoral research studied the effects of pollution on the health of coral reefs, an area of expertise. She credits an early mentor for pulling her in this direction and getting her hooked on it as an undergraduate. “That was Nancy Knowlton, who is a coral reef scientist and just retired from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as their chair of marine sciences. She’s amazing.”
Melissa spent many years looking at how microbes in the ocean and coral reefs interact with each other. Marine microbes are tiny organisms, not visible to the naked eye, that live in the ocean and can affect how it looks, feels or smells. If the delicate balance of microbes in the ocean is thrown out of kilter, this could potentially affect the health of coral reefs and the ecosystems that rely on them.
When she was studying coral reefs, she was tracking bacteria as they moved from point to point, in a discernible pattern that could be plotted. “The data problem behind identifying different types of behaviour, be it of a bacterium or a fishing vessel, is exactly the same,” the scientist says. Melissa applied what she learned from studying coral reefs to developing the vessel tracking system at PDS. “I’ve seen windows of opportunity to really boost up what we can learn and how we can move sustainability forward and that has taken me in a few different directions.”
Battling climate change
As someone with an overview of the overlapping issues affecting marine conservation, Melissa’s biggest concern centres around climate change. It’s always in the back of her mind, she says, when thinking strategically about where we should be heading. “We can’t plan around a tomorrow that looks the same as it is today. We have to be accounting for where that shift is happening.” The marine biologist predicts that the world will not be the same for our grandchildren as it is for us, but that we have an incredible amount of opportunity to make positive changes. “Fundamentally, we are a creative and resourceful species. Some of the solution is technology, some of it is the policy and some of it is social momentum.”
One of the things she believes we can all do is to bind our voices together into a “collective larger voice” when it comes to climate change. “Yes, our individual choices matter,” Melissa notes, “but at the end of the day, what really allows that business-as-usual machine to keep chugging is much bigger than any individual, or individual choice that we’re making.”
As a collective, however, she’s convinced we can tackle some of the systemic challenges that arise from apathetic governments, big business and powerful lobbies wanting to keep the status quo in place. Melissa suggests giving whatever you can, whether through a small donation, skills or time, to an organisation that is fighting the “business as usual” scenario. “What might feel like a token - ‘Here’s my 50 cents’ - adds up if everybody is choosing to put their voices forward,” the scientist argues.
Having only founded Working Ocean Strategies in February, the organisation is just ramping up its momentum on the frontline and beginning to carve its role in the protection of our environment. Melissa sees Working Ocean Strategies’ core work as “supporting all of the organisations and communities that are on the front lines, to be their most effective selves”. A core aim of the consultancy, she explains, is aligning incentives: “We think a lot about how to align the market incentive and the financial incentives with the social and environmental outcomes that are desired. Because, ultimately, if those are clashing, we’re never getting where we want to go.”
As founder and CEO of Working Ocean Strategies, a for-profit company, Melissa uses her entrepreneurial background and business knowledge to help nonprofit, governmental and academic organisations think more like business owners. Nonprofits are often reliant on grants and donations, which are finite resources. She therefore spends much of her time creating self-sustaining finance models focused on achieving her clients’ objectives.
Humbling ocean experiences
In everything she does, the CEO draws motivation from the global communities she’s visited and worked with collaboratively. When she left Pelagic Data Systems in early 2020 to pursue new projects, the company was in about 40 different countries around the world. Melissa says she’s been met with “generosity and hospitality” most poignantly in places that often have the least to give. “The generosity of spirit and determination to figure out how to make a better life for children and grandchildren is universal and always motivating.”
Of course she’s inspired by the ocean. A certified scuba diver she’s had many memorable experiences underwater but one continues to play like a film in her mind. She was at Palmyra Atoll in the Northern Line Islands about 2,000km south of Hawaii in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. “I was a graduate student at the time and I dropped in [the water] and then I looked around and there were literally dozens of reef sharks.” While reef sharks are generally non-aggressive they can grow to be about 2 metres. She lost count when she hit about 18.
“Academically I knew that is what a coral reef is supposed to look like but I’d already spent nearly a decade diving on coral reefs and had never seen anything like that.” That particular dive reminded her of something that can be easily forgotten: “It was just stunning and it was very humbling. A small percentage of reefs in the world remain in that state.” Moments such as that one make her feel fortunate to have spent her entire career working with forward-thinking teams and mentors paving the way for others and cracking open new fields. “If you see an opening it doesn’t matter if anybody else sees it or not,” Melissa reasons. “That’s really what science and innovation are all about. Pursuing that is really important.”
Despite setbacks to progress the founder is still hopeful for the planet. She’s inspired by younger generations using social media and technology “to fuel a really powerful movement speaking out for a better future for themselves”. For her own part the marine biologist likes to be actively involved in the struggle: “I’m typically always in motion so I like to try and funnel that motion in a direction that I think has concrete good to be done in the world and having a child of my own also keeps me focused on what the future looks like for her and her peers.”
Her daughter is still only six years old so she’s not quite dive-ready but she is getting used to the water by kayaking in a pond near their home. Living in a coastal community in California it’s probably only a matter of time before she falls in love with the ocean like her mother did.
Melissa Garren is the founder and CEO of Working Ocean Strategies and previously co-founded Pelagic Data Systems. She holds a PhD in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.