Building Commercial and Environmental Partnerships in Crystal Cove

About This Project

“Our break-through with State Parks came when we discovered that we need a different type of decision-making paradigm here; none of us can make a unilateral decision in this space…when that was finally acknowledged, everything broke through and we were solving problems together.”– Harry Helling, President of Crystal Cove Alliance

In 2012, California’s Marine Life Protection Act created 52 unique protected areas along the Pacific coast where fishing is either prohibited or severely restricted. The Act was a source of disagreement in the Crystal Cove area between environmentalists who supported it and fishermen who felt it threatened their livelihoods by limiting commercial fishing activity. Crystal Cove Alliance (CCA), a non-profit organization whose mission includes conservation in the Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area along with the state of California, envisioned a partnership that would further conservation efforts as well as provide fishermen with new opportunities for sustainably keeping boats on the water with non-consumptive educational K-12 field trips. The president of CCA, Harry Helling, a long-time conservationist and marine biologist, developed a cross-sector collaboration program that advances CCA’s conservation and education mission, abides by the new environmental regulations dictated by the state in Crystal Cove State Park, and helps to preserve the financial viability of commercial fishermen. The resulting collaboration is an example of innovative social enterprise, paving the way for the park’s sustainable future and benefiting parties from all sectors.

When Harry left his position as a research associate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he spent over two decades helping to grow the Ocean Institute, into a nationally acclaimed marine education organization. In 2008, he brought his extensive management experience and scientific knowledge to Crystal Cove Alliance to further its collaborative conservation efforts.

Intellectual Thread

After leaving the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1981, Harry drew on his marine biology and education expertise to grow the Ocean Institute, a non-profit organization that advocates for the conservation and protection of marine habitats through education programs serving over 120,000 K-12 students annually. His combined background in science, conservation, education and non-profit administration gave him the knowledge necessary to lead the collaboration.

Transferable Skills

Harry served on the executive team that oversaw the growth of The Ocean Institute into an organization with 130 staff and a $9 million annual budget. He helped to build a financially sustainable organization by making earned income an essential part of The Ocean Institute’s non-profit culture. He also developed high-level management and strategic planning skills built on commitment to partnerships and social enterprise; his final project at The Institute was a successful $16.5 million capital campaign and the construction of a new five-building campus. Harry attributes his leadership success to his agility not only with numbers, but also with getting different organizations to work together – non-profit, academic, and state – in a broader and interconnected ecosystems.

Contextual Intelligence

An experienced manager of non-profit conservation organizations, Harry fostered communication across sectors through his ability to speak “for-profit language.” His conviction that effective conservation and education efforts could also generate revenue, and that this goal could be achieved through collaboration, led to a sustainable project that satisfied conservationists while fostering economic growth. For example, he addressed the concerns of local fishermen by developing a new profit center built on a previously untapped audience, keeping Newport Landing Sportfishing’s boats in operation and their staff employed during the slower fishing months. Harry’s recognition that fishermen’s would need to continue working despite the enactment of MLPA led him to negotiate an early commitment by Newport Landing Sportfishing of $.40/ticket from their existing business, which provided the financial fuel to grow a new sustainable business opportunity that met both organization’s missions.

Balanced Motivations

Harry has 25 years of experience in the conservation and education non-profit field, and has maintained a passion for marine conservation throughout. His desire to address conservation issues through improved education and awareness about oceans, especially for young people, has been a guiding professional principle. He saw the opportunity to combine his expertise and his passion at CCA, and committed himself to working with the state of California in order to create a new model for how non-profits can partner with California’s state parks to improve effectiveness and efficiency of resource management.

Establish a governance structure

When Crystal Cove was designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2012, the state outlined a stakeholder-driven process to develop conservation programming in each area. Stakeholders were separated into three groups that met monthly, and each came up with a potential solution to conserve marine habitat in Orange County, including Crystal Cove. A vote was then held, and eventually the most popular solution was implemented. This participatory, stakeholder-driven model at times relied on outside scientific experts to keep participants up to date on the best science available to better inform their joint efforts.

Share a vision of success

Harry saw where stakeholder priorities overlapped and co-developed the social enterprise model toward a common goal. CCA and NLS emerged with a business plan and discussion on return on investments for participants. This was seen as a sustainable solution, mixing earned revenue with grants to achieve conservation of 1,100 acres of pristine underwater habitat. Harry noted that “It doesn’t matter which side of the vote you were on, both sides want a healthier environment with more fish.”

Communicate the interdependency of each sector

Achieving the conservational and educational mission of CCA required the partnership of local fishermen and local school teachers. Fishermen rely on the CCA for the knowledge and experience to develop a new profit center. CCA’s collaborative partnership keeps the cost of Marine Protected Area Citizen Science Cruises low which, when combined with scholarships, makes them available to all students. This openness of access was crucial to CCA’s mission of engaging diverse middle and high school students in conservation efforts. CCA’s innovative program likewise allows students to play an important role in the data collection, positioning them as stakeholders in the environmental management of the park. CCA is in the process of expanding the model by taking traditional whale watch programs and adding specially developed teaching stations that can connect the enhanced field trip with deeper STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning objectives. The program has a direct public benefit, enhances the commercial activities available to fishermen, and achieves the conservation mission of CCA.

Demonstrate organizational competency and an ability to execute

While developing these new partnerships, CCA began to guide the discussions towards future objectives, rather than fixating on past grudges between participants. It took on the responsibility of marketing to schools, developing lesson plans, recruiting scientists, and serving as project manager. CCA also trained the crews of each boat so that they could act as teaching assistants for the school groups on board. The crews of the boats now play an active role in the educational and scientific programs of the cruises. The fishermen at Newport Landing Sportfishing have the boats, the crews, and the experience on the water to operate the cruises with successful educational and conservation outcomes. In addition, as a both a cost-saving and teaching effectiveness enhancing measure, CCA involved teachers as stakeholders in ‘teacher learning communities,’ resulting in another group of collaborative participants while helping educators meet required science-content standards.

After the implementation of the MLPA, the non-profit Crystal Cove Alliance created a cross-sector program to advance their educational and conservation mission and to benefit local fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened with the enactment of a new law. By using fishing boats to conduct education and science cruises – the Marine Protected Area Citizen Science Cruise – CCA created an organizational model that made financial sense to stakeholders from all sectors. By increasing profits for the private sector, and creating new programs to improve CCA’s own mission, Harry has developed CCA into a model non-profit for collaborative resource management with the capability of scaling-up. Continuing outcomes include:

  • An invitation to provide input to the Parks Forward Commission by the State of California to explore ways to increase the quality and quantity of public-private partnerships between the California State Parks and non-profits.
  • In 2013, Crystal Cove received $1 million to create and sustain the Berns Environmental Study Loop, where eight mini field stations allow students to participate in citizen science and contribute to Park management.
  • The State of California has used CCA’s partnership model that puts boats on the water with non-consumptive programming to inform building a state-wide citizen science network that can collect data to better evaluate MPA effectiveness.

Environmental Conservation