Human-kind has repeatedly learned, often belatedly, that nature’s eco-systems exist within a complex, interdependent, relationship within their environment. Although these relationships seem robust, we often find that this balance can be surprisingly fragile and vulnerable. A case-in-point is the state of the ancient kelp forests off the coast of Northern California. So why are California’s kelp forests in deep trouble?


Indispensable and in trouble!

Kelp forests are some of the most  productive and diverse of the planet’s ecosystems and have a key role in the marine environment.

Kelp is food and shelter for many marine animals including abalone, red sea urchins and threatened sea otters. They offer a safe habitat for juvenile fish to hide and mature within.

Kelp forests grows quickly, up to 2 feet per day, have existed for tens of thousands of years and seem invincible. But as reported in Oceans Deeply they are not.


Urchin Barrens!

Amazingly, in under five years the kelp forests off the coast of Northern California have diminished by over 90%. The cause, sea stars, actually, the absence of sea stars. You see, sea stars are the main predators of the purple sea urchin and when the sea stars were wiped out by a wasting disease several years ago the purple sea urchin population exploded.

purple sea urchin, kque news, California's kelp forests in deep troubleAnd what do purple sea urchins devour, you guessed it, kelp, with disastrous consequences for local fisheries and the marine environment.

The valuable, Red Urchin fishing industry in Mendocino County, that ships its product to Japan where it is consumed as Uni, a Sushi delicacy, has collapsed, down 90% over the last three years. Unfortunately, the smaller, purple urchins have little commercial food value. Similar declines face the abalone industry. {photo – KQUE news}


A Perfect Storm!

Since 2014, while purple urchins were devastating kelp forests, ocean temperatures off Californiqa’s coast have been unusually high and kelp needs cold water to thrive. Both, of these conditions have contributed to the historically, rapid demise of kelp forests.


Shellfish Divers and Conservationists become Ocean Allies!

Can we reverse this trend and bring California’s kelp forests back? Marine biologists, shellfish divers and conservationists, often at odds, are combining their efforts and resources to study the problem and restore the kelp forest ecosystem.

Urchin diver Jon Holcomb is working with Cynthia Catton a marine biologist with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. They have been diving on test sites in an attempt to remove the purple urchins. Holcomb fist used a vacuum cleaner-like device to suck up sea urchins, a seemingly monumental task when considering hundreds of miles of coast.

‘It’s much like trying to scratch the paint off a house with a pin. It’s not gonna be easy.’ Holcomb stated.

Recently this has evolved into a more productive process of simply shattering the urchin shells, which is quicker and has the extra benefit of releasing the shell’s calcium carbonate (countering ocean acidification) back into the sea. So far, in those test areas where the purple sea urchins have been eliminated the kelp has revived.


Is Kelp Forest Recovery Possible?

There has been some better news, recently, sea temperatures seem to be returning to a more normal level and sea star populations may be recovering. Hopefully these new sea stars will be resistant to the wasting disease that killed so many several years ago, allowing them to resume their role as chief predator of purple sea urchins.

Will these recent changes restore the necessary balance in the area’s marine ecosystems and allow California’s kelp forests to revive? Blue Ocean Network will keep you current.

By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network


See these related Blue Ocean Articles:

We get by with a little Kelp from our friends
Marine Protected Areas: Good News, Bad News
Trump Attacks EPA and Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Areas: Giant Leap for Fish Kind
An Update on the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accord
Trump Is Pulling Out of the Paris Climate Agreement!
Former EPA Heads Speak Out Against Trump
Ocean Warming Faster: New Research Shows
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