More Information

Meredith Elliott


Senior Scientist, ACCESS Program Biologist

West Coast Ocean Priorities

Executive Summary

On the left side of the page, click on the “Download the Brief” button to download a short summary of the report and the “Download Full Report” button to download the detailed report.

The marine environment along the west coast of the United States is known as the California Current Ecosystem; this eastern boundary system is highly productive due to coastal driven upwelling. In addition to hosting biologically important species, these waters also host important economies and an increasing human population. There is a need to understand the conservation priorities in the California Current, and how these priorities align or conflict with industrial activities and other threats.

In an effort to identify marine conservation priorities, we reviewed 33 documents that focused on ocean research and management issues along the U.S. West Coast. We identified the species, habitats, resources, and threats emphasized by different ocean stakeholders. Important species include fish (e.g., salmonids, Pacific sardine), invertebrates (e.g., Dungeness crab, Olympia oyster), birds (e.g., seabirds, western snowy plover), mammals (e.g., blue whale, Steller sea lion), and different marine vegetation species (e.g., kelp species, sea palm, eelgrass). Most habitats referenced in documents were considered a part of the Marine Nearshore system (e.g., beaches, rocky intertidal, kelp forest) or Estuarine system. In terms of resources, food production was emphasized the most, including fisheries, aquaculture, and other harvesting activities; recreational and cultural uses of the ocean were the second most emphasized resource, followed by commercial development (e.g., shipping), ecological/natural processes that the ocean provides (e.g., ocean circulation, upwelling), and energy (e.g., oil extraction, renewable energy projects).

The threats to the California Current Ecosystem are split into two categories: direct human impacts (threats attributable to direct human activities) and indirect human impacts (threats that are largely related to climate change). In the direct human impacts, we found the top threats emphasized are fishing, pollution (including urban, nonpoint, and industrial sources), and disturbance. The most important indirect human impacts that we found are changes in natural processes, ocean chemistry changes (acidification and hypoxia), sea level rise, increased temperatures (both sea surface and air), and invasive species.

The habitats enduring the most threats are shallow benthic, estuary, intertidal, and pelagic. Shallow benthic habitat is affected by both direct and indirect human impacts, and it is connected to the most number of species groups; however, this habitat is dominated by invertebrates and may not affect different levels of the marine food web as other habitats (e.g., estuary, pelagic). Habitats closest to human populations are considered the most vulnerable and less likely to be resilient to further stressors; the marine nearshore group contains most of these habitats, and the highest priority habitats identified are seagrass beds, beaches, dunes, and rocky intertidal.

Key Recommendations

Sustainable Fisheries & Harvest

  • Create better, environmental data-driven harvest guidelines, especially for forage and sensitive species
  • Calculate predator needs into management plans
  • Improve knowledge of stock structure
  • Improve biomass estimates
  • Improve management of shellfish mariculture


  • Slow ship speed
  • Modify shipping lanes using ecological data
  • Modify ships to reduce noise pollution
  • Improve vessel management plans
  • Minimize dredging and other development projects

Restoring & Protecting

  • Restore and protect kelp and eelgrass to ameliorate ocean acidification
  • Continue restoring riparian habitat
  • Protect mature oyster beds
  • Reduce human disturbance and trampling in intertidal and beach areas
  • Protect upland habitat for future migration of species

Needed Research Topics

  • Climate and ocean chemistry-driven species predictions
  • Marine portion of the life cycle of protected species
  • Role of red sea urchins in bull kelp beds
  • Noise pollution effects on marine organisms
  • Impacts of sea level rise on eelgrass habitat, beaches and dunes, and rocky intertidal habitats
  • Age-specific survival rates for recovering species
  • Monitoring for sustainable harvest and all species and habitats


Get Involved

Get Involved

You can help the environment and support our work in lots of ways: becoming a conservation volunteer, attending our events, or following and sharing our blogs and newsletters.


Consider making a donation as well. Give Today