People in Your Neighborhood: Point Loma’s Melissa Morris puts her passion for the ocean to work
The ocean is synonymous with San Diego’s coastal communities. Protecting it is no easy feat, but Melissa Morris, a Point Loma transplant from South Florida, is one individual trying to make strides in her work as a conservationist to combat negative impacts on the environment.
“I’ve always had a love for the ocean,” Morris said. “Pretty early on I was exposed to the water. I’ve always been really fortunate to grow up in cities that were coastal.”
After graduating from high school, Morris studied in Australia, where she learned about the emaciated state of the Great Barrier Reef due to coral bleaching resulting from rising ocean temperatures. She says that’s where she found her spark for a career in conservation.
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As a graduate student at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, her focus was on researching sustainable seafood. In 2018, she found that among 80 seafood restaurants, few served locally sourced or sustainable food. She began working on raising awareness among San Diegans on how to identify local seafood and restaurants that serve it.
In June 2021, Morris joined the nonprofit Oceana, the largest international advocacy group dedicated solely to ocean conservation, which focuses on influencing policies from an environmental science perspective.
“I started working at Oceana as a field representative, and I was connecting with elected officials and learning how the process really works,” Morris said. “I still believe the best way to enact change is with legislation.”
More recently, Morris helped work toward the passage of California’s Senate Bill 54, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law at the end of June, as an effort to fight plastic litter and ocean pollution. It requires that all packaging in the state be recyclable or compostable by 2032 and that 65 percent of all single-use plastic packaging be recycled in the same time frame.
Morris currently is working on state Assembly Bill 2026, which aims to reduce the number of single-use plastic shipping envelopes.
At the local level, Morris has helped work on ordinances that passed in Carlsbad, Solana Beach and Encinitas.
“I’ve always had a love for the ocean. ... I’ve always been really fortunate to grow up in cities that were coastal.”
— Melissa Morris
Nancy Pyne, Oceana’s field director for U.S. campaigns and Morris’ direct supervisor, said Morris has “really hit the ground running” since joining last year.
“She jumped into the deep end with our campaigns,” Pyne said. “It’s essential for the work that we do to do it in coalition. I’ve really loved seeing her jump into this work and get familiar with our coalition partners.
“I’m thrilled to be working with her at the beginning of her career because I know she’s going to do great things.”
Mark O’Connor, a volunteer with the Surfrider Foundation of San Diego County and co-lead for the organization’s Rise Above Plastics committee, said Surfrider and Oceana are sister environmental nonprofits that have worked hand in hand for years. They engage with city councils and staff members and help create ordinances targeting things such as plastic straws and utensils and plastic foam.
“Melissa is a strong partner in these endeavors. She is knowledgeable, friendly and determined,” O’Connor said. “Melissa helps round out part of the team approach needed to be successful in environmental advocacy. We need more people like Melissa to join in the fight to heal the planet.”
Before joining Oceana, Morris in 2020 started the nonprofit Service to Sea, which gives to the military community while working to inspire families to participate in coastal conservation efforts.
“What stood out among all of her accomplishments was her volunteer work in starting a nonprofit with veterans and service members to get them out on the water as a therapeutic act of service and as a way to teach people about conservation,” Pyne said.
“I started it because I’m a military spouse and I was learning the ins and outs of what military families go through,” Morris said. “I wanted to give thanks and give them something unique and different.”
Through the organization, Morris gives San Diego-based service members and their families a free conservation-related activity of their choice. Options include snorkeling, whale and dolphin watching or dining at a sustainable seafood restaurant. Each activity is coupled with an educational component.
“We had a family go and take part in our sustainable seafood option at a restaurant down in Little Italy, and we provided the names of the different species they may see on their menu and why they’re important,” Morris said.
Morris is a passionate snorkeler, saying it gives her a way to decompress.
“The ocean brings me a lot of peace and tranquility,” she said. “Scientifically, being on or near the water is something that can help reduce anxiety and depression, something that service members or their families can struggle with when they are apart. A lot of these activities are multifactorial.”
Service to Sea is fundraising through a GoFundMe campaign and its website, servicetosea.org.
People in Your Neighborhood is an occasional series in the Point Loma-OB Monthly. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.