kyle McBurnie kelp forestCalifornia’s famed national parks are known for the grandeur of towering redwoods, mighty sequoias, and bizarre joshua trees, all which grow slowly and live for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

But did you know that California is home to another impressive forest which boasts rich biodiversity comparable to its old-growth counterparts and is equally important to the state’s wildlife and economy?

This week’s Blue Ocean Ecosystem Icon is the kelp forest of central and southern California. (photo – Kyle McBurnie)


What is a kelp forest?

Similar to terrestrial forests, the kelp forest has a canopy and a multi-leveled understory which offer essential habitat to a multitude of plants and animals in different life stages. Kelp, a type of algae, is the heart of this thriving ecosystem which provides plentiful nourishment for approximately 1,000 species, including invertebrates, fish, birds, sharks, marine mammals, and even humans. A dense kelp forest can also effectively protect animals and coastlines from storm surges while contributing to natural carbon sequestration.



A Forest Under Siege

With so many living organisms taking part in this robust ecosystem, one might be surprised to discover that a kelp forest is so fragile it can quickly be destroyed. Strong winter storms caused by the El Niño weather pattern can damage, if not rip out, an entire forest. Additionally, with a reduction in the number of sea urchin predators, such as sea otters, California spiny lobsters, and sheephead, the urchins proliferate. As they feed on the kelp’s hold fasts, they can convert large swaths of forest into “urchin barrens”.

The productivity and success of these underwater forests is directly impacted by many human activities. Run-off from developed areas can introduce sewage, agricultural, and industrial byproducts into coastal waters. The excess nutrients and increased sediment result in cloudy, polluted water which impedes photosynthesis, leading to reduced kelp growth rates. (photo – Kyle McBurnie)


Fisheries Need Healthy Kelp Forests

Commercial fisheries rely heavily on kelp forests for the species it shelters, including rockfish, urchins, and more. The kelp itself is also harvested for widespread use in food additives and pharmaceutical products. Overfishing and overharvesting can rapidly imbalance and diminish the kelp forest ecosystem. Furthermore, the warming waters and increased ocean stratification caused by anthropogenic climate change is already impacting kelp forests by compounding the effects of the strong El Niño storms along the American west coast.


The Future of Kelp – Can it stay afloat?

kelp forest with lobster kelli dickinsonIt’s easy to see that California’s kelp forests are facing a “perfect storm” of ecosystem stressors.  Disappearance of kelp forests will have a widespread biological impact, reducing the overall productivity of coastal waters. This could cause a resounding economic impact: California’s productive fisheries could be greatly reduced; our developed shorelines will be subject to increased erosion; and our thriving coastal tourism industry, dependent on scuba diving, wildlife watching, recreational fishing, and more, could potentially collapse. (photo – Kelli Dickinson)


Thankfully, our kelp forests stand a chance. Kelp grows at an astounding rate of over a foot per day, allowing the algae to be resilient to even severe disturbances. Correctly placed and well-managed marine protected areas and sanctuaries, along with continued scientific research will ensure the future success and productivity of this valuable ecosystem.

Though the outlook for kelp forests is hopeful, American marine sanctuaries and monuments are currently under threat by a recent executive order issued by President Donald Trump.  The America-First Offshore Energy Strategy has the potential to open some of our marine protected areas for oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction.  We will keep you informed on the progress of this executive order and other policies of President Donald Trump and the effects they may have on the marine environment.

By Erika F. Delemarre a Blue Ocean Network contributor
Masters of Advanced Studies Candidate, Marine Biodiversity and Conservation
Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego


See these Related Blue Ocean Articles:

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
Marine Migrations Magnified by Ocean Warming


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