“If in any country a forest was destroyed I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here from the destruction of the kelp.” –Charles Darwin 1834
One can only imagine the abundance of creatures Darwin saw at the Galapagos Islands to suggest kelp beds were home to far more animals than the forest of any country in the world. The naturalist captures in one sentence the essential role kelp plays in the marine environment. In California, the undersea forests formed by giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) provide critical habitat and food for over 800 species of organisms. They hold one of the greatest concentrations of biodiversity in all the world’s oceans. The remarkable number of creatures whose existence depends on the giant brown algae makes it an irreplaceable feature of the marine ecosystem.
Kelp forests support one quarter of native marine life in California waters. If the kelp is lost so too are those species. Raising the specter of such a loss is the drastic decline of giant kelp in California. Over the last century eighty percent of it has vanished. The potential consequences of this wide spread loss of essential habitat are devastating and have spurred restoration efforts to reestablish the kelp.
Throughout the 1970s, though already in decline, giant kelp maintained reasonably dense coverage in Southern California. Then a particularly strong El Nino in 1982-3 ushered in warm water and powerful surf stripping the coast of kelp. Orange County suffered a 90% loss. Whereas in years past the kelp recovered, it never returned. “There are areas in Orange County that haven’t had kelp in thirty years,” said Nancy Caruso, a marine biologist leading the Orange County Kelp Restoration Project sponsored by the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.
Caruso is involved in a multi-faceted program as restorer and educator. She teaches local students how to grow kelp from spores, which are then transplanted to the ocean. With favorable conditions the kelp takes hold and begins reproducing and a kelp forest emerges. “This year we’re seeing places we’ve planted now migrating down the coast and they’re growing very quickly,” said Caruso. With the reemergence of kelp, sea life has returned as well. “Now that there is a whole kelp forest it’s literally like a fish superhighway,” she said. Without kelp many recreational and commercial activities people enjoy and depend on for their livelihood, like fishing and diving, would be threatened. “Kelp forests attract fish larvae,” said Caruso. “A lot of our commercially important species are attracted as planktonic larvae to come in and settle in a kelp forest,” she said. As goes the kelp so go the fish, as well as more than seven hundred other organisms, too.
Giant kelp once thrived along the California coast. The extensive size of the kelp forests fluctuated through the seasons in response to a complex array of natural factors. Water temperature, clarity, nutrient levels, weather, and the population size of kelp eating sea urchins all played a role. Historically, there existed a natural balance among the intricacies of the ocean. The kelp forests naturally waxed and waned in size along with the variances of each season. Then as the state’s population continued to grow the kelp forests began to thin. And disappear.
The reasons behind kelp’s disappearance are not all known, but humans have certainly been a significant factor. Sediment in runoff from coastal development can smother kelp sprouts and also affects water clarity. Murky water lessens the intensity of sunlight reaching the seafloor to insolate young kelp plants and spur growth. The absence of the southern sea otter and over fishing are prime factors, too. A sharp reduction in the population of key predators like otters, sheephead, and spiny lobster has left sea urchins unchecked. While sheephead and lobster still exist, they are small in size with too few large enough to have a significant impact on the urchin population. The resulting overabundant urchins devour young kelp and severe holdfasts sending the mature plants floating to the surface leaving behind barren reef. Factors like these combine to thwart kelp’s ability to replenish itself after sustaining losses due to natural causes.
An electronic design engineer by trade, Gordon Lehman first began kelp restoration work in late 1995 with North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (ROP). As a volunteer NAUI dive instructor he developed a kelp program for his class. “I came up with the idea to teach the students to put something back in the ocean because divers and fisherman have been taking away for years,” said Lehman. While the program did not succeed it created a base of knowledge Lehman built on. The following June, ROP collected kelp that was adrift and made their first transplant.
Mr. Lehman then teamed up with fellow dive instructor, Cliff Noland, and created Coastal Marine Technology, Inc. (CMT) to perform the restoration process. After successfully transplanting kelp around Little Corona in Corona Del Mar he attracted the attention of Algalita Marine Research Foundation. “With some minor funding from Algalita we set up a laboratory in my garage for sporing kelp,” said Lehman. He grows kelp plants from spores on ¾ inch strips of ceramic tile using a system and portable aquarium technology he designed and developed through CMT. It takes spores 60 to 90 days to grow into visible kelp sprouts. When the plants reach several inches in length they are transplanted to the ocean and attached to rocky reef areas of the seafloor.
Working as an independent contractor the last several years, Lehman hopes to secure funding for his next restoration project slated for Dead Man’s Reef at Crescent Bay in Laguna. “My first goal was, and still is, to SCUBA dive through a kelp bed and know the bed is there because I decided to do something about it!” said Lehman.
Kelp is not the only focus of restoration efforts. In 2002, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper began an experimental eelgrass (Zostera marina) program at Frenchy’s Cove on Santa Cruz Island to re-establish beds devoured by white sea urchins a decade earlier. A phenomenal boom in the urchin population in the late 1980s destroyed the eelgrass, but after the voracious vegetarians died off from disease the plants never recovered. Years later only bare sand remained until volunteers with Channelkeeper replanted the area.
Eelgrass supports a wide variety of organisms, but unlike most marine plants and algae it grows in open expanses of sand making it a unique and critical component of the nearshore environment. “Eelgrass creates meadows in sandy areas that provide three dimensional habitats,” said Jessie Alstat, science director with Channelkeeper. “So you get much greater numbers of species than occur in sandy flat areas,” she said, explaining how the green reed-like plant transforms barren sand flats into flourishing microenvironments, which support dozens of creatures including rock crabs, spiny lobsters, and fish like kelp bass and cabezon.
“We transplanted individual shoots harvested from two locations on Santa Cruz Island,” said Alstat. After surviving a brittle star outbreak the plants flourished and spread on their own. Now the bed covers half a mile more sand in Frenchy’s Cove. “It’s a fantastic experience to go out there and swim around in it and know that I had a major role in bringing it back,” said Alstat. “This last year alone there was 250% more eelgrass,” she said. The once barren sand flats are now covered with life sustaining eelgrass, which is a flowering plant recognized by the State of California as essential fish habitat.
Kelp may often be called seaweed, but it’s far more than just a mere weed in the sea and nor is eelgrass just worthless roughage. Both serve vital functions in the marine ecosystem and foster healthy fisheries. Without kelp and eelgrass to provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds an entire web of life suffers and declines leaving behind a barren and depleted marine environment. With the loss of this oceanic habitat comes the loss of a great portion of the state’s historic natural splendor. And many people’s lives would be forever altered for the worse. Fortunately, a select few individuals recognize the problem and have acted to restore the once great California kelp forests that provide so much to so many.
Originally published in print in Deep Magazine. Archived online at deepzine.com.