TalentView: Shelby Oliver


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Let’s imagine for a moment a video game called “Sea Warden”. In that adventure, Shelby Oliver would be its undisputed female protagonist. Instead of being an archaeologist like Lara Croft, our heroine would be a marine biologist, and like any hero, she would also have a mission: to ensure seafood sustainability. To achieve this, Shelby would imagine herself diving or swimming among sharks, but, as in all adventures, in this one unexpected travel companions would also appear and they would end up becoming partners. And so, the girl who dreamed of preserving the oceans with her feet in the water, would end up doing it with her eyes in the sky.

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Now let’s go back to earth to discover that Sea Warden is not a video game, but a company, and that Shelby Oliver is not a fictional character. She exists, she is a marine biologist, passionate about seafood sustainability, and also co-founder and Head of Product of the company. And yes, she is also a kind of heroine, the protagonist of that adventure of opening a start-up where every day there is something new to do and, hopefully, to learn. An exciting challenge for someone always looking for creative solutions such as making a world map of aquaculture using satellites and Artificial Intelligence, for example. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Since college, your steps were already heading towards it, but why aquaculture?
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I started in marine biology, and I wanted to do ocean conservation and, actually, fisheries. Like a lot of people, I wanted to work with sharks and fisheries conservation issues. And then, as I started down that path, I started to learn more about aquaculture, beginning with the famous graph of fisheries catches haven’t changed since the nineties [Shelby draws a flat line in the air with her hand] and then you see this explosive curve from aquaculture [now the line in the air turns dramatically upwards] and so I started to think “okay, maybe there are more opportunities for me in aquaculture”. And the pace at which it was developing also means that there’s been a lot of challenges, not to say there are not in fisheries, but I think aquaculture certainly has its issues and opportunities for making hopefully a positive impact and helping in the industry.

It’s also, of course, in terms of food security and opportunities in the future, a very attractive food source in that way, and, rather than fisheries where the focus is on maintaining and increasing production where we can in the ocean, with aquaculture, there’s an opportunity to really feed a lot more people. It’s exciting in that sense, so while I’ve moved back and forth between aquaculture and fisheries, and I still work in fisheries a bit, it’s nice to be focused on aquaculture at the moment.

You define yourself as “passionate about seafood sustainability”. What advantages do you think Aquaculture has over other industries when it comes to sustainability?

Compared to animals grown on land, such as cows and pigs, fish and other aquatic organisms have lower feed conversion ratios. Aquaculture also presents many opportunities for economic diversification as well as species diversification.

In terms of economic sustainability, people around the world can engage in aquaculture in many different scales, from a few to many ponds. As an example, I traveled once to northern part of Ecuador (Esmeraldas, Timbre) and worked with a women’s aquaculture cooperative. They had about 5 ponds where they were growing tilapia and selling it in the community. Everyone still had other jobs, but the tilapia provided a very good supplementary income source. So, I think for women especially, aquaculture holds promise for improved livelihood.

Shelby Oliver and Zack Dinh, Sea Warden, at a shrimp farm in Thailand.
Shelby Oliver, co-founder and Head of Product at Sea Warden, and Zack Dinh, co-founder and CEO of Sea Warden, at a shrimp farm in Thailand.
You are co-founder of Sea Warden, a company that maps and monitors global aquaculture activity using satellites, AI, and cloud computing to collect data on the industry to advance the sustainability of farmed seafood. How does it work? How can satellites, cell phones, and big data help in this process?

We focus mostly on shrimp aquaculture at the moment. One of the problems facing the shrimp industry is that a significant number of producers are smallholders, largely in Southeast Asia, and South Asia, where there are a lot of data gaps. It’s a very fragmented industry, with many farmers, and generally low transparency. We don’t know some of the basics around where farms are located, what’s the spatial extent of farms and what are their operations, how many crops are produced each a year…  some of this pretty basic information. And with everything, if you don’t have a baseline level of information that’s collected frequently, it’s pretty hard to make improvements or significant changes.

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The industry is quite reliant on sending people into the field to fill data gaps and address needs, either collecting samples or, let’s say for certification, you send someone to farms for audits. These in-person efforts are pretty expensive, time-consuming, and then, for farms in remote locations, can be very challenging to get to. Because of these hurdles, many farmers aren’t receiving the services they need, and the industry continues to have large data gaps preventing effective decision-making and greater transparency.

That’s where this idea of remote efforts really comes into play and where satellites have a big role and opportunities. And while we’re focused on shrimp at the moment, our ultimate goal is to map all the world’s aquaculture. Something that would not be feasible without satellites and advanced data processing, including AI and machine learning techniques.

At Sea Warden, we focus on addressing traceability, responsible sourcing, and to de-risk investment using satellite data. Let’s take a single shrimp farm in Indonesia as an example. First, we’ll map the pond boundaries using our object detection model. Then, we evaluate the crop production history of the farm by analyzing historic satellite images. We’re tracking the production status at a weekly scale for each pond, tracking when are they full or empty with water. By knowing historic crop production practices, and tracking near-real-time production, you can estimate annual harvest volume, predict when ponds will harvest, and estimate parameters including energy, water, and feed use.

What we do for one farm, we can do for farms across entire regions, and create a ‘pond search engine’ where users can specify search criteria and Sea Warden can find those farms for you. This Pond Search Engine is useful for many industries, but let’s say you an NGO involved in a big sampling effort to track farm improvements or to better understand the baseline operations of farms in an area. You can use our services for decision-making around survey design where users can say  “okay, now we know there’s this many farms in this area, we want to sample this many”, or “we want farms that have these characteristics, so we can go give technical support”. Now for seafood processors, they can say “we’re looking for farms that meet our responsible sourcing requirements”, in terms of location, proximity to natural habitats like mangroves, but that also, at the same time, are very highly productive and predictable, producing three crops a year. We can determine a lot through satellite imagery, but not everything. And that’s where cell phones fit in.

We have a project with Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) at the moment, working with smallholder shrimp farms in Indonesia for improvement programs. Data availability is generally a key challenge with these programs, since farmers may not be routinely collecting all information that’s needed for assessments. Cell phones provide a way for farmers to collect data, both text and photos, and have that information easily compiled and available in the future as a reference. So that for, in the instance of ASC, when auditors or people show up, farmers can show that “yes, we’ve been collecting our dissolved oxygen samples this whole time”, or “here’s how much feed we’re using, and here’s photos of the feed bag labels”. The idea is to increase assurance within the program, and shift data collection and review from something that only happens once a year when an auditor/program personnel comes to the farm, where it’s all based on pieces of paper and it’s not organized, to a system where there’s more constant communication and data flow between the farmers and certification groups/anyone working on improvement programs. We use a common messaging platform that everyone’s familiar with, WhatsApp, so, it’s easy, people know it, and feel comfortable engaging.

So, your data collection has started with shrimp, why this particular species? Do you plan to expand to others?

There are a couple of interesting things about the shrimp industry. One, it’s very big. At least in the United States, it’s the most consumed seafood, so, at a global level, it’s definitely an important species. But there are also a lot of challenges in terms of transparency and production, and concerns around making sure that you have responsible production practices. So, I think from that point, it’s quite an interesting species to look at. But also from a satellite imaging perspective, because since the production is occurring in ponds, you can really see what’s going on with production. Ponds will basically fill and drain with water when they’re in production, so farms will put water in, stock the water with shrimp, and then drain it out when they’re ready to harvest. We can track these stages of production using satellite imagery.

But ultimately, our goal is to make a map of the world’s aquaculture, so we do very much want to work with other species. Our plan is to first go into more other pond-based species, first, map all the ponds, then move into cage culture, salmon, tilapia, and then, rope culture, so seaweed and mussels.

Yes, you also advocate for a global map of aquaculture. Could you explain why? Moreover, could you explain how this atlas can help the aquaculture industry?

That’s really how Sea Warden started. I met, Zach [Dinh], who’s the CEO and founder of Sea Warden, and he was doing his master’s at UC Berkeley. His thesis was using satellites to map fish cages in Greece. We are friends and would meet up over a beer to talk about aquaculture. He would always say ” my goal is to make a global map of aquaculture”. He was like “we have global fishing watch, we have global forest watch, aquaculture is half the world’s seafood, why don’t we have a map?”. At the same time, I talk to friends or family members, and they’re like “you work in, what? what do you do?”. Even though so much of our seafood comes from aquaculture, and at least in the US and in Europe, where the aquaculture industry may be smaller, people don’t even know that seafood are farmed. They’ll know about oyster farming, but that’s sort of it, they don’t know that shrimp are farmed. There’s also a lot of public mistrust that comes from it because they’re not that familiar with it, or have been told in the past to not eat farmed seafood, and aren’t aware of all the improvements that the industry has made. There’s a case for the Global Aquaculture Map from merely a public education perspective.

As I was mentioning earlier, the data gaps that exist in the industry as a result of many smallholder producers, fragmented nature … By not having a global map, there’s a lot of progress that’s being slowed down currently, whether it be NGOs that are trying to sample areas and figuring out “how many farmers are here? how many farms do we need to sample?” or production statistics at country levels, or disaster relief response. Without baseline data, it’s hard to make decisions.

Our goal is to map all the world’s aquaculture and give people some baseline data that they can use and help us. We’d update the map every year and people can see where the industry is growing, if you’re a management agency, where should we better plan, all these kinds of things. We’ll have additional services provided for users, but giving everyone a baseline understanding of where aquaculture is in the world, what species are probably being farmed, and how much food can be produced, is powerful and I think will cultivate a lot of further innovation and transparency.  

We are talking about satellites, computers, cell phones… in short, we are talking about machines that collect and process data, but we always like to emphasize people. In which place do you locate the human factor in your project both inside and outside the company? 

For us, the reason we started Sea Warden is we wanted to help people, to hopefully be able to create information that made people’s lives easier, by giving people data and tools, to make their jobs easier, improve livelihoods. Essentially, to do what we can to assist the great work that everyone is already doing on the ground. If we can make everyone’s job a little easier, then we would be pretty happy with that. And yeah, I think we’re always evolving and trying to understand how we can bring the most value, especially to farmers. That’s because we do work, most of the time, a few levels removed from the farmers themselves. So, we are focused on how what we’re doing can help enable farmers to can get more investment, reduce risks, earn more money for their products. That’s something that we’re constantly thinking about and trying to incorporate into our company to make sure that we’re giving those benefits to the people doing the work.

But, at a company level, we’re very small, we’re a small team and though we all work remotely, we spend a lot of time joking around, doing reading reviews or things that aren’t so tied to the work, but I think are important. If you don’t know the people you work with on your team and you don’t feel like you’re working together for something, it’s pretty hard to do the work. So, I’m quite grateful that we all get along well as a company and spend a lot of time not always just talking about work, but also joking around.

As the Head of Product at Sea Warden, what is your daily routine/role?

What’s really been interesting for me is that I’ve never started a company before, this is my very first time, and, you know, you have your role but then you do so many other things. I handle much of the operational work, including taxes and bookkeeping.  As Head of Product, I’m responsible for talking to potential customers, figuring out their needs, and making sure we develop services to meet them. So, lots of emails, lots of meetings on zoom and those things. But, also working with other co-founders around strategy, things like ” Where do we want to grow? What are segments of the industry we aren’t yet working with? What materials do we need to accomplish our goals?”. But there’s always a lot of random things that pop up all the time that you’re just like, “Okay, well, I don’t know anything about that, but I will try to learn”.

I think small companies are the same. There are very few people but you still have to do all the same things as a big company. There’s an excitement about it, for sure, since things are always changing and constantly growing and learning new tasks.

What challenges do you think the industry, your company, and yourself will face in the future?

I think the industry come a very long way. It’s been around for thousands of years, but a lot of improvements have been made in the last 10, 20 years in terms of production practices and we’re just continuing to learn more, reducing resource use, and I expect that to continue. So, I think the challenges we’re going to face as an industry are many environmental factors, including climate change. How’s that going to impact the good work and progress that we’re making? What does that mean about areas where we’re farming things now that maybe we can’t farm in the future? Those kinds of big issues around, disease risk, anything like all agricultural sectors, just shock to the system, and how do you deal with that? So, I would say that’s probably one of our big challenges, trying to improve while remaining adaptable to the world that’s coming.

As a company, for us, as we said, satellites in aquaculture it’s definitely a new concept. People aren’t always familiar with it, understandably it’s kind of “I see where it could help, but I’m not sure”. So, for us, it’s constantly evolving our messaging, talking with people constantly, and helping understand together “okay, this is what we can provide. How does that fit best into your system?” and making sure that Sea Warden is meeting people’s needs and continues to do so. As with all companies, you’re constantly evolving.

And, at a personal level, that’s the same. There are always new issues that pop up or new skills that I might need that perhaps I haven’t done or not something I feel comfortable with. So, I guess my challenge is trying to remain flexible and curious, and to adapt to things that come up. We’ll see how I do.

Shelby Oliver, scuba diving.
Shelby Oliver, scuba diving.

As we said at the beginning, Shelby Oliver is the female protagonist of this adventure called Sea Warden. Always eager to learn, always creative, always passionate, always resilient to achieve her objective: making a positive impact and helping the aquaculture industry. She watches out for the sustainability of seafood. More than a warden, a true guardian.

About Sea Warden

Sea Warden uses satellites, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing to map and monitor global aquaculture activity. What began as remote monitoring for seafood certification programs to conduct remote audits during the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved into a remote monitoring system to amplify the efforts of industry, governments, and conservation groups working to drive environmental and social impact within aquaculture. Its ultimate objective is to make a global aquaculture atlas.

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