Stories in California

Transforming Ocean Conservation in California

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

Bull kelp under a giant kelp canopy at Ribera Beach, Carmel, CA.
California Coast Bull kelp under a giant kelp canopy at Ribera Beach, Carmel, CA © Patrick Webster

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 In California and around the world, limited public funding, capacity and data are straining outdated management models in meeting their objectives—particularly in a changing climate.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.    

Frank Hurd | Notes from the Field (3:17) Fisheries Project Director Frank Hurd takes us out on the water in El Manglito, Baja California Sur. A TNC tool called Poseidon is helping this tight-knit fishing community protect marine life and ensure sustainable catch.

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 (3:14) 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 (2:16) 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 (2:36) 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.


Islands are remarkable features of our planet. While representing only 5% of the Earth’s land area, islands host extraordinary concentrations of unique species. They’re also key features of healthy marine ecosystems and support the health and livelihoods of communities around the world.

Unfortunately, islands are also extinction hotspots—a trend driven largely by invasive species and exacerbated by climate change. These biodiversity losses reduce the capacity of islands to recover from threats in a changing world.

Yet islands give us hope. Conservation action has led to remarkable recovery stories on TNC’s Santa Cruz Island and Palmyra Atoll Preserves, giving us the opportunity to think bigger and leverage this foundation of success. With this legacy of successful island stewardship and TNC chapters embedded in multiple island nations, we are embarking on an exciting Island Resilience Program to accelerate the pace and scale of conservation on important island geographies in California and around the world.

Building big conservation visions with partners is at the core of our approach. Together, our goal is to find solutions for conservation at scale, such as all US Islands across the Pacific, and the Subantarctic Islands in the Southern Ocean.

As global thought leaders, we are investing in scientific partnerships to track conservation interventions on islands worldwide, including efforts to eliminate the key threat of invasive species. And on the Santa Cruz Island and Palmyra Atoll Preserves, we are testing innovative and scalable solutions, such as “seabird discotheques” to reestablish these charismatic species and their critical roles in island ecosystems.


The Fight Against Ocean Plastics

Looking toward the decade ahead, the health of our oceans will depend not only on what is coming out of the water but also what is going into it. A blue whale’s worth of plastic enters our oceans every nine minutes, and if bold action isn’t taken in the next five years, an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic will be beneath the waves by 2040. With the help of the Our World campaign, TNC is leveraging science, policy and innovation to tackle plastic waste at all levels, from the tiniest microfibers to our plastic takeout containers. Learn more about what we're keeping out:

  • Microfibers

    We’ve conducted a flows analysis to estimate of the volume of microfibers that enter the lands and waters off CA from washing synthetic clothing and explore near-term policy interventions.

  • Single-Use Plastics Graphic

    Single-Use Plastics

    We’re supporting policies in California that push for statewide reductions in waste generated from single-use plastic packaging, while improving data reporting requirements for retailers to better track progress toward state waste reduction goals.

A surfer walks on a beach covered in trash.
Plastic We’re supporting policies in California that push for statewide reductions in waste generated from single-use plastic packaging. © Jason Childs
A graphic showing that a single load of laundry can release 700,000 plastic microfibers that pollute oceans, land, rivers.
Microfibers Plastic microfibers polluting our planet. © TNC
× A graphic showing that a single load of laundry can release 700,000 plastic microfibers that pollute oceans, land, rivers.
Plastic We’re supporting policies in California that push for statewide reductions in waste generated from single-use plastic packaging. © Jason Childs
Microfibers Plastic microfibers polluting our planet. © TNC


A Threatened Ecosystem

Coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the ocean floor but they support 25% of all marine species. Coral reefs are also essential to many coastal economies, and they help protect the world’s coastlines from dangerous storm surges. At least 500 million people globally rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, and their livelihoods. In the U.S., annual flood protection benefits and tourism revenue provided by coral reefs amount to over $4 billion.

Yet coral reefs are also among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth due to climate change and increasing local threats like overfishing, coastal development, and pollution. In the last three decades, the world lost 50% of its coral reefs. If we stay on this destructive path, up to 90% are projected to disappear by 2050.

Divers swimming in unhealthy corals
Coral Reef Restoration Divers prepare the coral reef for restoration work. © Paul A. Selvaggio/TNC

Coral Restoration

Hope is not lost. The conservation community is working on two critical fronts: reducing threats to reefs, and actively restoring coral reefs.

In recent years, exciting progress has been made in coral restoration techniques, but these research efforts take time to translate into field application. Most existing techniques rely on manual labor, making them slow and prohibitively expensive. An average coral restoration project currently covers just over 1,000 square feet and each piece of coral costs $25-250 to grow. This means restoring an acre of reef costs over $1 million, a price point that prohibits advancing the pace and scale of restoration we need.

We don’t have much time left to secure a future for coral reefs. TNC’s California Oceans Program can make a major contribution to coral restoration by leveraging California’s unique strength as a global leader in technology and innovation and by bringing a diverse mix of partners to the table.

Our Vision for Coral Reefs

Under a business-as-usual scenario, the world’s reefs will likely be gone by 2100. We want coral reefs to thrive and persist well beyond this century. To achieve this ambitious vision, we are focused on three objectives, all designed to massively scale up coral restoration around the world.

Reducing Cost

  • Our Oceans Team is collaborating with engineers to develop technological solutions to automate coral growing and outplanting to radically reduce the cost of coral restoration.
  • We are testing the feasibility of and business models for semi-automated, high-capacity coral nurseries that are financially self-sustaining.

Increasing Funding

  • We are working with partners in academia and the financial industry to identify non-traditional funding sources and mechanisms that can leverage funds from reef beneficiaries such as the tourism industry and coastal property owners.
  • We are exploring how we can harness existing hazard-mitigation funding and investments in coastal protection infrastructure to restore coral reefs.

Accelerating Learning

  • We are working with our colleagues in the Caribbean and the Coral Restoration Consortium to develop an online coral restoration database that allows for easy sharing of restoration project outcomes across the globe. This will help us understand the drivers of success in coral restoration.
A whale breaches extremely close to a fishing boat in Monterey Bay.
The Ocean Connects Us All We all rely on the ocean, from the oxygen we breathe to our climate and weather, we are connected by the waters that make life on earth possible. © Douglas Croft/TNC Photo Contest 2021


We all rely on the ocean, from the oxygen we breathe to our climate and weather, we are connected by the waters that make life on earth possible. Our California Oceans Team goes to work every day with one goal: protect and restore ocean ecosystems. Join us.