Beyond Silicon Beach: How LA County Is Banking On The Ocean For New Jobs

A rare and endangered blue whale feeds 11 miles off Long Beach Harbor, near offshore oil rigs in the Catalina Channel (David McNew/Getty Images)

It's hard to imagine life here in Southern California without the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

But it's not just about hitting the beach or catching waves — the ocean is also a big money-maker for the state. So much so, that Los Angeles County will now keep closer tabs on jobs and industries tied to what it's calling the "ocean economy."

Broadly speaking, that means jobs dedicated to harnessing the ocean's resources, which spans a wide range of sectors from fisheries to international trade.

It's the first time in nearly a decade since the county added a new category to its list of industrial "clusters," which include entertainment and media, aerospace, and tourism.

According to a new report from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, L.A. County was home to about 200,400 of those "blue jobs" in 2018 and pulled in a colossal $34 billion in total economic output — accounting for nearly a quarter of the $143 billion generated by California's overall ocean economy.

Marine transportation and tourism are currently the two dominant players in California's ocean economy (Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation)

Those numbers are expected to increase, with regional economic output projected to exceed $80 billion by 2023.

"Once you start tracking it as its own sector, you can see how it's growing," said Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose office commissioned the report.

In the coming years, jobs in "living resources," like fisheries and marine construction are forecast to see double-digit increases. But there are other areas that could see substantial growth, like robotics and medicine made from marine life, thanks to the region's active marine science community and the county's existing maritime infrastructure.

(Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation)

And public-private partnerships, like the collaboration between the Port of Los Angeles and the ocean institute AltaSea (which contributed to the LAEDC report), also provide incubation space for emerging ocean companies, particularly those tied to environmental sustainability and climate resiliency.

That includes Holdfast Aquaculture, an L.A.-based startup that grows mussel "seeds" for offshore shellfish farms. They provide a local species of mussel that's already adapted to Southern California's waters, so aquaculture farmers no longer have to rely on imported seed from out of state.

That in turn, can help make offshore farming — which doesn't require soil, land, or freshwater — profitable and sustainable.

"We're going to need things like [aquaculture] to meet all the issues related to food insecurity in the coming decades," said Holdfast founder Diane Kim.

The report also highlights how other sectors, like renewable energy, could boost the overall local ocean economy while also dealing with the multitude of effects from climate change.

Supervisor Hahn says that's the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship the county needs to incentivize to prepare for the future ahead.

"It's like this ocean has been in our backyard this whole time," Hahn said, "It's easy to forget that it's like acres of diamonds if you've grown up here."