Opinion: Green Light

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The Education of Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen

He’s learned; he’s playful; he’s determined; he’s optimistic. He’s one of Laguna’s and America’s treasures. Unless you knew him or asked him you most likely wouldn’t know that this articulate local surfer and national leader of Surfrider Foundation has a doctorate from UCLA in resource economics and is passionate and knowledgeable about ocean matters. Meet Chad Nelsen, with whom I recently conducted a one-hour Zoom interview.

Like so many of us, including one of his heroes, former Coastal Commission legend Peter Douglas, Nelsen’s environmental record is not unblemished. Growing up with his buddies in Laguna Beach, as teenagers they did a fair amount of spearfishing until they found the larger fish hard to find. “We went to some older lifeguards and asked them what’s happening.  ‘Don’t you know it’s fished out,’ we were told.”  At that time (late 1980s): “I didn’t know anything about marine ecology.” Nelsen’s environmental education had just begun.

When I asked him about Laguna’s Marine Protected Area, he replied enthusiastically that as a result of no-take zones our local waters teem with fish. “The difference if you go in the ocean today off Laguna is absolutely night and day [compared to when] I was a kid. You see schools of sheepshead, calico bass, bigger than you’ve ever seen.”  The abundance and diversity of fish has increased considerably, he said. “It’s been absolutely wonderful and a tremendous success.” When I asked him how he knew this, he replied that he regularly snorkels off Moss Point, Thalia Street, Brooks Street, Heisler Park, and Shaw’s Cove. The Marine Reserve is the main reason for the comeback, he said.

Moving on to sea-level rise, when asked about cliff erosion Nelsen said the San Diego chapter of Surfrider has urged moving the Amtrak rail line landward to assure its stabilization. Capistrano Beach “got battered and suffered coastal erosion” last year he noted, due to storm surges and sea-level rise. Armoring the coast is not a long-term solution and coastal adaptation planning is needed, Nelsen said. “Downtown Laguna Beach has got to be very flood-prone” and vulnerable to a sea-level rise that could reach between two to six or seven feet. He also wonders about Laguna’s 80- to 100-year plan to combat sea-rise. Surfrider has been working with the California Coastal Commission to help seaside communities start making choices about how to adapt. 

When asked about skimboarders’ breaking the sand berm at Aliso Beach, Nelsen expressed concern about recreationists impeding “the natural functioning system” that the berm provides for reducing the pathogens that would otherwise flow into the Pacific Ocean. He acknowledged the difficulty of policing the berm-breaking, stressing the need to educate skimboarders on the ecological harm they’re causing. 

Finally, we got to the elephant in the room—climate change. Climate change is going to have a number of impacts on Laguna, he said. “Sea-level rise and our response to it” is going to have a major impact on surfing; we’ll lose a number of surf breaks along California’s coast. “We’re going to lose our beaches which are our number one source of coastal and ocean recreation.” He then moved from the recreational to the ecological impacts of climate change. “I saw a sea turtle at San Onofre. I think it’s a warm water thing. I’ve never seen [a sea turtle there] before.” Invasive species, drawn by warmer coastal waters, also concern him. Warming water “is a stressor” on marine life and a warm water blob sits off California’s coast. San Diego has recently registered near 80-degree Fahrenheit ocean water, he noted.  Surfrider is addressing climate change by supporting the Ocean Climate Solutions Act because “oceans are at the center of climate change.” Sea grasses and wetlands are carbon sinks. Surfrider also supports reduction of carbon emissions and getting off fossil fuels, he added.

From an environmentally unaware spear-fishing teenager in Laguna, Nelsen steadily acquired the formal and experiential education to teach all of us about our coastal marine environment and how we can care for it.

Tom Osborne is writing a history of California environmentalism and co-leads, with his wife, Ginger, the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Email: [email protected]/

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