Claire Gonzales slowly lowered herself from the boat’s edge into the cold Pacific Ocean along California’s coastline. After about a year of learning to scuba dive in a public pool three hours from any ocean, 17-year-old Gonzales was finally taking her first deep dive.
About 100 feet below the surface, Gonzales stopped short. In front of her was a huge rock wall covered in what looked like pink, wriggling strawberries wreathed in tentacles.
“Strawberry anemones are not the charismatic megafauna that you think is going to enamor a lot of young scuba kids,” said Gonzales. “But it was a whole wall of these little, little creatures living little, little lives. I spent most of the dive staring at that one wall. It just blew my mind.”
Gonzales already loved science. But that moment was “switch-flipping,” she said. She wrote all her college essays about the ocean. After graduating from Duke University with a degree in biology, she conducted marine field work in the Caribbean (scuba diving, of course) before joining a nonprofit that explored repurposing offshore structures to build healthy underwater ecosystems.
Now a doctoral student in marine science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Gonzales has earned one of three 2022 fellowships from the Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office. Working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Gonzales is exploring a new way to help protect the ocean she loves: co-locating marine energy with offshore fisheries. This happy marriage could help conserve ocean spaces, feed the planet, and reduce carbon emissions.
Gonzales shared how she scuba dove into marine science, why she shifted from basic to applied research, and why offshore fish farming—also known as aquaculture—is perhaps more important now than ever before.
WPTO’s Ripple Effect series features individuals whose impactful work will help advance hydropower and marine energy technologies to achieve a clean energy future.
It must be unusual for someone living three hours from the ocean in Elk Grove, California, to get into scuba diving. What was it like going from the desert to under water?
The perspective change is wild. You go from cement infrastructure to a totally alien world below the water’s surface. Not many people from my hometown get to see that. I used to play soccer, but in the second half of high school I quit and did a lot of soccer refereeing so I could make money and feed my scuba addiction. The whole breathing under water thing was thrilling for me. Because I grew up in the middle of the state, the ocean was just a whole different world.
There are so many areas of marine science you could have chosen—why study marine energy and aquaculture?
After college, I was a dive master at a field station in the Caribbean and taught college students how to scuba dive to do field marine research. We were also the divers for all the researchers at the field station. One study looked at coral bleaching (when corals turn white due to environmental stressors, like warming waters); we also did research on conch, a type of tropical marine mollusk. And we studied sharks, dropping cameras into the ocean to record them. That experience is when I decided I wanted to do more applied research. The basic research was very cool, but I wanted to ask more targeted questions and create solutions. Working in the field that intensively, I saw a lot of things I wanted to fix.
Like what? What are you working on now that you’re a graduate student?
When I came back from the Caribbean, I spent about four years working in consulting and nonprofits doing more applied work. I got really into the concept of Rigs-to-Reefs, repurposing old oil rigs to use as artificial reefs. I worked part-time for an organization that focused on Rigs-to-Reefs, and that’s how I got into the energy space. Now, I believe I’ve found a synergistic intersection of the marine habitat and the energy world in marine renewable energy.
Now you’re studying how to create sustainable fish farming?
Yes. Wild fish stocks are not able to keep up with the growing environmental risk associated with climate change. We’re having to rely more on aquaculture, which surpassed wild fisheries in seafood production. A lot of people have farmed fish or cultured shellfish in their diets, and we tend to get that from other countries quite a bit. We produce it less in America.
And marine energy could help the industry grow sustainably?
Marine energy is a newer type of technology, but it’s also increasing in importance. We see these two industries (aquaculture and marine renewable energy) growing at the same time and in the same hypothetical space. Co-locating them means we reduce ocean resource use and create more space in the ocean. For example, scientists are trying to get aquaculture further offshore to reduce things like pollution, and renewable energy can help with that. If you’re combining things like mooring (tethering technologies to the seabed) and permitting (acquiring permission to operate in specific ocean sites), it just makes things a little bit easier. On both sides of the conversation, you're reducing costs and environmental impacts.
What specific challenges will you be working to address during your fellowship?
I want to look at both the physical and social components of co-locating marine energy and aquaculture.
The physical prong looks at the attributes all the different, competing marine sectors need to thrive. Off the coast of California, we’re evaluating where the physical factors—like available wave energy resources and appropriate conditions for growing seafood—intersect and could create compatible locations for multiple sectors at the same time. Could we physically have more than one ocean activity exist in this space at the same time?
And the social component?
More and more, we are discovering that industries need social license to operate. We’re at a pivotal moment right now in ocean development. The country’s leaders are asking us to do things in a more sustainable way, specifically when it comes to energy. This is a good opportunity for us to take the lessons we've learned from previous energy generation and figure out a way to do it better. A lot of people, especially in California, dislike ocean development. My project is essentially asking California stakeholders how co-located systems might affect them and looking for ways to minimize social impacts and produce a system that more stakeholders feel included in.
If you succeeded, what would that look like?
I would really like to see co-location work on a scalable level, to see it produce jobs, provide food security and clean energy, and reduce carbon emissions. It could provide lots of benefits for Californians. And, both locally and globally, saving ocean space is important; we don’t have that much space to operate in and develop.
What do you hope to gain from your fellowship?
I hope to gain an understanding of the physical and social parameters that might allow for marine energy and aquaculture systems off the coast of California. Can we co-locate these systems in a way that benefits both sectors, the environment, and local stakeholders? This fellowship will provide me with resources and support, from both my mentor agency—the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management—and the greater U.S. Department of Energy network, to help me learn more about my subject matter and create science that is valuable.
What advice do you have for someone thinking about applying to the Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program?
Apply! Especially if you have interest in early-stage research on marine energy. Think critically about why your project would be helpful in furthering our understanding of the U.S. marine energy sector and why your mentor agency would be an important component in your project’s success. Also, when I was applying, I found it very helpful to reach out to the current fellows. So, if you are thinking of applying, don't hesitate to reach out to me or to other current and past fellows and ask questions.
What advice do you have for the next generation of marine scientists?
Just ask people questions about what they do. If you see someone doing something you’re interested in, ask for a chat. People in this community are very willing to sit down and tell you how they got where they are; we have all been the person asking the questions or asking for help. Also, try something, even if it’s not going to be the thing you do for the rest of your life. I bounced from one thing to another for a while but without those experiences, I wouldn’t be so passionate about my current career.
Did you face any obstacles along the way?
I never saw myself as an academic person. In college, I had a very average GPA. So, just coming back for graduate school in the hard sciences was a huge obstacle for me because on paper, I always felt that I was very middle of the pack. If you don’t feel like you’re standing out in your undergraduate experience, that doesn’t discount you from doing whatever you want to do. Whether or not graduate school is part of that, you should be able to find a career that makes you happy.
The Marine Energy Graduate Student Research Program is open to full-time graduate (master’s and doctoral) students with a marine energy-focused research thesis and/or dissertation at a U.S. institution. Applications for the 2023 program are due Dec. 2, 2022.