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Meet Surfrider's New CEO: Chad Nelsen

After an exhaustive national search, the Surfrider Foundation named its new CEO – and it's none other than Dr. Chad Nelsen, the Environmental Director of the organization for the last 16 years.

“Chad’s 16 years at the Surfrider Foundation as the Environmental Director has been marked by outstanding stewardship of our conservation mission,” Surfrider Foundation’s Board of Directors Chair Liisa Pierce Fiedelholtz shared in this news release. “Nelsen’s proven track-record of leading high impact campaigns has clearly demonstrated his ability to significantly build the reach of this incredible organization.”

This is very exciting news for many of the staff, members, chapters and friends of the organization whom have known and worked with Nelsen for years. For everyone else, let’s learn a little bit more about our new CEO.

Can you introduce yourself in seven words or less?

Hi, my name is Chad Nelsen and I believe Margaret Mead was right.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

What are your three biggest accomplishments?

Over the last 16 years, as the Environmental Director for the Surfrider Foundation, I have been a part of hundreds of on-the-ground victories that have made for healthier coasts. The knowledge, persistence, and teamwork amongst our volunteer network of activists, chapters, and staff lead to incredible results. That said, here are a couple that stand out.

One of my proudest accomplishments is the establishment of the Reserve Marina Tres Palmas in Puerto Rico, one of the first marine reserves dedicated to protecting the marine environment and surfing. Another was the huge victory to save Trestles in San Clemente by stopping a six lane toll road that would have destroyed the state park and the world-class wave. Last, leading the development of “surfonomics,” which is the science of understanding the economic value of surfing, has been exciting and rewarding. Surfonomics is now being applied to coastal preservation efforts around the world.  The economic value of healthy coastal ecosystems is an underutilized tool in coastal conservation - something we are changing through our ocean recreation studies.

When did you first learn, know, or become acquainted with the Surfrider Foundation?

As lifeguard in the mid-80s, I first saw the Surfrider logo on t-shirt hangtags. At the time Surfrider was promoting ocean safety.  I grew up in Laguna Beach, California, where I enjoyed the beach with my family, surfing with my brother and friends, and working as an ocean lifeguard, all of which cultivated my desire to protect the ocean.

During summer of 1995, I volunteered as an summer intern for the Surfrider Foundation and researched artificial surfing reefs. I used that research for my masters thesis. That summer I also got involved with Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force and conducted the first storm drain-stenciling program in my hometown. After that, working at Surfrider became my dream.

Why did you apply for the CEO position at the Surfrider Foundation?

My career focusing on coastal protection was launched through my studies at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in their Coastal Environmental Management program. My subsequent work as a NOAA Coastal Management fellow, my work as the Environmental Director, and my doctoral research on Surfonomics through UCLA was aimed at this opportunity so it seemed like a natural progression to apply for the CEO position.

Why is the mission of the Surfrider Foundation important to you?

“I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it's because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it's because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came.”—John F. Kennedy

This JFK quote encapsulates exactly how I feel. The ocean, waves and beaches have been essential elements in my life. I grew up on the beach, was an ocean lifeguard, my father taught marine biology, my brother was a professional surfer and now runs a surf camp for kids. I now have twin boys who are completely surf stoked and my family spends a ton of time at the beach. Our coastal lifestyles and economies rely on a healthy coastal environment. Clean water, beach access, healthy beaches and a thriving ocean are worth fighting for.

What are a few of your priorities as you transition into your new role?

I have three priorities in this role.

  • To build more support for our chapter and activist network through additional tools and resources, and to do a better job sharing their stories. The passion, persistence and dedication of Surfrider activists defending our coasts each and everyday is the real story of Surfrider. If you care about the coasts and then see our activists in action, it’s impossible not to become a supporter of this organization.  
  • To shift our strategy from a reactive to a proactive approach. We are really good at fending off bad projects but we need to get ahead of the curve and start pushing conservation instead of waiting for threats to come to us.
  • To address the impacts of climate change on our oceans and coasts such as ocean acidification and sea level rise. I believe this will be the biggest challenge we face in the next 30 years.

We are doing all three now but not consistently across our network, we must scale these activities to increase our impact.  

What do you attribute success to?

Hard work, determination, respect, high expectations for yourself and others, and a healthy dose of humor and fun. If you can get that mix right, nothing is impossible.

What's the biggest challenge you feel the Surfrider Foundation faces, and how do you inspire your employees and network to meet it head on?

I believe our biggest challenge is going to be adapting to climate change along our coasts. Even if we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, we are going to see 100 years of change due to the lag time for warming in the atmosphere. Sea level rise and ocean acidification are already having massive impacts on our coasts and those impacts are expected to accelerate.

In the face of sea level rise and the associated coastal erosion you have three tough choices: armor the coasts and lose our beaches, pump sand on the beach at great cost and impact,  or move back, which requires moving or abandoning coastal property.

Surfrider has been addressing these on a case-by-case issues for decades so we understand the impacts,  challenges and also the possible solutions.  As a result, we are uniquely qualified to turn that experience into a more comprehensive and proactive effort to adapt to the inevitable future state of our coasts. The inspiration part comes easy given how strongly we all feel about protecting the places we love along our coastlines.

What is one piece of technology you can’t live without?

Like many others, it’s my smartphone. Outside of the usual (email, social media, camera, etc.), I love having access to the tides (Tide Graph Pro) and the surf reports (Surfline). My local surf spot needs just the right direction and is also very tide sensitive so I am constantly on the lookout for the rare conditions that make it break just right.

What is one fun fact about yourself you have (quirky habit, hobby)?

I really love to hike, rock climb and mountain bike in the red rock country of the southwest, which is about as different from the ocean as you can get. Except for the fact that some of the ancient rock formations are called swells. I also love the Dolomites, which were ancient coral reefs, so maybe it all is related to the ocean one way or another.