Harmful blooms formed by species of the dinoflagellate Cochlodinium have caused massive fish kills and substantial economic losses in the Pacific Ocean. Recently, prominent blooms of Cochlodinium have occurred in central and southern California (20042008), and Cochlodinium cells are now routinely observed in microscopical analysis of algal assemblages from Californian coastal waters. The first documented economic loss due to a Cochlodinium bloom in California occurred in Monterey Bay and resulted in the mortality of commercially farmed abalone. Increasing occurrences of Cochlodinium blooms, the fact that these cells preserve poorly using standard techniques, and the difficulty of identifying preserved specimens using morphological criteria make Cochlodinium species prime candidates for the development of a quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) approach. The 18S rDNA gene sequenced from Cochlodinium cells obtained from California coastal waters, as well as GenBank sequences of Cochlodinium, were used to design and test a Molecular Beacon® approach. The qPCR method developed in this study is species specific, sensitive for the detection of C. fulvescens that has given rise to the recent blooms in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and spans a dynamic abundance range of seven orders of magnitude. Initial application of the method to archived field samples collected during blooms in Monterey Bay revealed no statistically significant correlations between gene copy number and environmental parameters. However, the onset of Cochlodinium blooms in central California was consistent with previously reported findings of correlations to decreased surface temperature and increased inputs of nitrogenous nutrients.