There are some things you have to learn the hard way, such as the perils of staking our economic health on sure things that are actually high-stakes gambles.

We're seeing the fallout from that risky policy as we try to claw out of this recession and watch one European nation after another succumb to an economic crisis. Investment advisers will try to sell you the latest version of a safe bet.

I will do you one better: Invest in resources that have proved to only increase in value.

I'm talking about our 840 miles of coastline, which generate high returns, year after year, decade after decade.

Whether for a short visit or to settle permanently, our iconic coastal waters attract people and form the bedrock of our economy.

Consider that the coastal economy in San Mateo County alone is worth more than $58 billion. Everyone from the ice cream vendor on the pier, the dive shop owner, the real estate agent, even the tourist window shopping for a new bikini has a stake in keeping the ocean healthy.

Millions of tourists who visit California spend billions of dollars in its hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions.

According to the state tourism board, travelers spent more than $100 billion in California last year alone, directly supporting nearly 900,000 jobs.

Proximity to the ocean and the diverse array of people, plants and animals that call the coast home provides a quality of life that attracts the world's top talent to California. It is no coincidence that the most productive companies in the world call California home.

Translating the intangible value of our iconic coastal waters into dollars can help ensure we manage our natural capital wisely.

A study by Save the Waves Coalition last year estimated the economic value of the big-wave surf spot Mavericks to be nearly $24 million a year.

State officials must avoid cutting corners when it comes to protecting and maintaining the coastal areas that make California so unique.

Virtually every dollar supposedly saved by closing state beaches, reducing water-quality monitoring or decreasing beach cleanup and patrols will result in a net loss to the state when the full range of economic benefits of the coastline are taken into account.

Those of us who live and work near the ocean may resist the idea that we should put a price tag on the ocean or its benefits.

To many of us -- myself included -- the sea is priceless. Yet, if we aren't explicit about these values, they get overlooked.

We shouldn't be afraid of such economic analyses. We should embrace them and use them to make the case for strong ocean protection.

Fortunately, most Californians recognize the importance of a healthy coast and many are proactively seeking to increase preservation and ensure long-term sustainability.

On June 6, a coastwide network of Marine Protected Areas was finalized -- the first such network in the nation. These new underwater parks add to the state's extensive system of state parks on land and both provide unparalleled recreational opportunities as well as significant economic benefits.

Access to natural beauty is one of California's greatest economic strengths; it is also a great equalizer, providing everyone, regardless of income, access to beaches and parks.

We should never take this for granted; our economy and who we are as Californians depend on it.

Jason Scorse is the director of the new Center for the Blue Economy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the author of "What Environmentalists Need to Know About Economics."