Stories in California

Transforming Ocean Conservation in California

The world needs a new approach to protecting our oceans, and California is at the forefront.

Low clouds over the ocean.
The California Coast Fog off the coast of California. © David Hills Photography

Our oceans are critical to all life on earth. Our oceans are the primary source of protein for one in seven people worldwide. They fuel economies—like fisheries, tourism and trade, and host some of the most ecologically valuable areas on the planet.

But as oceans become more stressed because of pollution, development, overfishing, and climate change, their ability to provide essential benefits to people and nature declines.

In California, TNC has a team of scientists, technologists and conservation practitioners testing new, collaborative ways to protect ocean resources and coastal communities. We are demonstrating what innovative ocean management can look like—not only in California, but around the world.



In California, our Fisheries Team is focused on solutions for healthy ocean ecosystems and thriving fisheries.

Some of the greatest threats to ocean ecosystems stem from poorly managed fisheries. Fisheries provide a food source for 3 billion people and directly employ over 30 million fishers worldwide, but sustainability is limited by problems that produce threats like overfishing, bycatch, and habitat destruction. In California and around the world, limited public funding, capacity, and data are straining outdated management models in meeting their objectives—particularly in a changing climate.

We have found that the people best positioned and motivated to restore ocean health are the ones that depend on it most: fishing communities. We work with fishermen and community leaders motivated to improve their fishery and match their expertise with our team’s cutting-edge science, technologies and unique experience. Together, we apply adaptive, cooperative management and develop innovative climate-ready fishery solutions that can better support healthy oceans, healthy fish populations, and resilient fishing communities. 

Our Approach is Getting Results

Our efforts in California have resulted in breakthroughs that have helped rebuild fisheries, secure coastal jobs, and sustain important sources of seafood.

  • Groundfish: We’ve worked in partnership with fishermen and community leaders to help revitalize the West Coast groundfish fishery that collapsed over a decade and a half ago. Over the last decade we’ve demonstrated cooperative harvest practices, tested new technologies, conducted scientific research, and developed new institutions to maintain fishing rights in communities. We’ve helped the California Groundfish Collective reduce its bycatch of overfished species by 50% compared to the rest of the fleet, and together we tested electronic monitoring, a technology which uses video in place of human observers on fishing vessels, to prove out a more cost-effective option for ensuring compliance with harvest regulations. In addition, our team engages in seafood market incentives to support fishing businesses for fishermen who have changed their harvest methods to provide sustainable seafood people can trust.
  • Swordfish: Within the California swordfish fishery, we are testing new fishing gear with local fisherman and environmental researchers to more effectively target swordfish and avoid turtles, sharks, and marine mammals. Our shared goal is to apply the new gear to achieve profitable and sustainable swordfish businesses that bring high-quality fish to local California markets and reduce our reliance on imported seafood from fisheries that are less regulated. We’re now working to leverage these successes in California to begin to tackle global bycatch challenges and are exploring pathways to scale this gear to countries like Peru and Chile.
  • Dungeness crab: We are collaborating with West Coast Dungeness crab fishing communities, management agencies, and scientists, to find new ways to reduce the risk of whales becoming entangled in fishing gear and improve the response to free trapped whales. Together, we are building programs to retrieve crab pots lost by fishermen during the season, training fishermen to help participate in the response to free entangled whales and have developed a tool guiding management action in times of increased entanglement risk.    
  • Red abalone: We are working with recreational abalone divers and other NGOs to pioneer cost-effective improvements to how we manage the abalone fishery in California and beyond. In collaboration with our partners, we have developed a data collection program that relies on citizen scientist SCUBA divers and a web application that uses image recognition technology to analyze photos submitted by any of the 25,000+ abalone divers in California. We developed a ground-breaking, climate-ready management framework that can integrate harvester collected data sets and other important streams of information to assess stock health and improve decision-making.    

Through this work, we are advancing climate-ready fisheries management by working closely with partners, testing innovative solutions on-the-water, modernizing California’s data collection methods and management frameworks, and influencing transformations around the world to support human wellbeing and ocean health.    

Filling the Data Gaps

One of the biggest challenges facing sustainable fisheries is the lack of information necessary for responsible management. These information gaps mean that managers, fishermen, and consumers are less informed and may be more likely to put ocean ecosystems at risk. One of the best ways to address this challenge is to work directly with fishermen, communities, and management agencies to build the tools and technology needed to allow fishermen to share real-time catch data with each other and with scientists and managers. We are filling these data gaps by conducting collaborative research with fishermen, academic, and agency partners to address key data needs in our priority fisheries.

Transforming Fisheries Management

When fishermen participate in the management of their fisheries, it results in better solutions that support healthy, productive fisheries. By working directly with fishermen to build new tools and engage in demonstration experiments on the water, we are supporting new partnerships to ensure policy changes are informed by science and experience.

Our vision is to transform California’s fisheries, their ecosystems, and the communities they support so that they are resilient to a changing climate by revolutionizing how they are managed. Success in California can then be replicated across more fisheries and ocean areas to deliver healthier ocean ecosystems and sustained benefits to people around the world.    

Protecting California's Kelp California’s incredible kelp forests are a critical ecosystem that is more productive than the Amazon rainforest. A breeding ground for more than 1000 species, they act as a protective blanket for our iconic beaches and have an immense impact on jobs and revenue for our state.



California’s incredible kelp forests are a critical ecosystem that is more productive than the Amazon rainforest. A breeding ground for more than 1000 species, they act as a protective blanket for our iconic beaches and have an immense impact on jobs and revenue for our state.

But a perfect storm has destroyed 96% of kelp forests on California’s North Coast.

The combination of warming ocean temperatures and a deadly virus has led to the die off of the sunflower sea star, which has set off a chain reaction resulting in massive loss for kelp. Sunflower sea stars eat purple urchin, and without enough sea stars, the urchin population has exploded to 60 times its usual size. Purple urchin feed on kelp and this ballooning population has eaten its way through much of the kelp forest, resulting in what could be permanent damage to the ecosystem if we don’t find a way to rebalance these species.

Climate-driven changes like those on the North Coast are leading to a massive die-off of kelp forests not only in California, but in places like Australia, Norway and Chile. TNC is committed to leading the way to address this global conservation threat by advancing solutions for protecting kelp forests in California and around the world.

Make a Difference in California

Together, we can achieve transformative change on a scale that’s attainable—for kelp, for California, and for the world. 

Stand Up for Nature

Virtual Dive Kelp Forests off the California Coast.


TNC has experience restoring millions of acres of forest habitat around the world—and now it’s time to save our ocean forests. With the help of diverse partnerships, we’re launching an ambitious effort to recover kelp at a speed never seen before. We’ve broken this plan into three key components.

  1. Research: To understand the extent of the problem, we conducted the largest known marine drone mapping survey in California history. Our team was the first to identify accelerating losses of kelp on the North Coast. In just three short years, from 2016 to 2019, we lost an additional 85% of our remaining kelp. If this trend continues, we are at risk of losing our kelp forest altogether.  
  2. Reset: By reducing the urchin population, we can make way for kelp to recover. To give nature a boost, we’ve developed a captive breeding program for the sunflower sea star, the purple urchin's main predator, to safeguard against their loss. Ultimately, we’ll reintroduce the stars to rebalance the ecosystem and keep urchins in check. We’re also supporting the development of an urchin ranching industry that turns purple urchins into valuable seafood, incentivizing their harvest by creating a new market.
  3. Restore: For the first time, we’re developing a spore bank for bull kelp in order to capture the biodiversity of California’s kelp before it’s gone. The spore bank will house genetic samples as a seed source for restoring healthy and resilient kelp forests in the near future.
Sunflower Sea Stars Now Critically Endangered The sunflower sea stars are being added to the IUCN red list this week and this video explains why and what is happening. Video by the Hakai Institute.

With this initiative, we are working to ensure that kelp forests here in California and around the world continue to support the incredible biodiversity and healthy coastal marine ecosystems on which both nature and people depend.

Sand dunes near the ocean with dune grasses and other plants growing on them.
Coastal Dunes Coastal Dunes at Moss Landing in California © Kiliii Yuyan


California's Treasured Coast

California’s coast is perhaps its most renowned and valuable natural feature—one that is at risk due to sea level rise. To protect our coast and the value it provides to nature and people, we need novel conservation and policy guided by science.

informing conservation and management in the face of sea level rise

Sea level rise presents a challenge to the conservation of coastal habitats already impacted by human activities. Our first step in tackling this challenge was to develop an assessment of the vulnerability of habitats and imperiled species to sea level rise in collaboration with the California State Coastal Conservancy. We found 55% of coastal habitat area vulnerable to sea level rise, vulnerability of 29 rare, threatened, and endanger species, and that 41,000 acres of conservation lands will be drowned. Using these results, we developed a strategy action map comprised of five strategies for what needs to be done to maintain and enhance coastal habitat area in the face of sea level rise.


After sharing this strategy map with key federal, state, and local agencies and decision makers, they have decided to put it to use. We have secured commitments from these agencies that signed onto a vision to maintain and enhance California’s coast in the face of sea level rise by working collectively to ensure the coast is protected for future generations to enjoy. TNC is now working with the 14 agencies that signed on to the “Hope for the Coast Campaign” to put this to work on the ground using best science in collective action to conserve coastal habitats.