Michael Mehta

Michael Mehta

Citizen scientists help reforest kelp on ocean floor

NANAIMO – Seaweed important aspect of ecology on West Coast

Michele Fire-River Heart worked quickly in the chilly morning air, peeling strips of spore-filled kelp off paper backing and punching them into plastic carboys. The ocean at her back was smooth. Too smooth. There was a time, decades ago, when the bay would have been dense with the bobbing heads of bull kelp. Today, only a few lone stems weave up from the rocky ocean bottom.

“Kelp is the forest of the ocean….and it’s disappearing,” said Heart, from Clark Bay on Gabriola Island. “People that have lived here for 20 years said [kelp] was so thick you couldn’t row a boat through it and now the densest areas [are] small patches. I want to help change that.”

Heart is part of a team of ‘Help the Kelp’ citizen scientists staging a coastal intervention to fight the disappearance of underwater forests.

Floating bull kelp canopies are considered critical ocean habitat and a major engine for near-shore productivity, providing a food source for urchins and crabs and shelter for juvenile fish. They absorb carbon dioxide and are believed to slow down shore erosion by softening the power of waves. Ecologists call kelp the unsung hero of the underwater food web and say its loss is a growing concern. Some question whether the decline of species like salmon is because of the waning underwater habitat.

 

Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources has been tracking the health of kelp since 1989 and said it appears there are canopy losses in inland waters, near the eastern Juan de Fuca Strait and Puget Sound. Historical records show there used to be large floating beds – the majority of which no longer exist.

Helen Berry, marine ecologist in charge of the Washington’s near-shore habitat monitoring program, said it’s important experts on both sides of the border investigate the causes of disappearing underwater forests and what can be done to turn the tide.

The challenge for restoration groups is the algae is not yet fully understood and there are still questions around its natural life cycle and factors affecting development. There are also data gaps on the B.C. coast, because the provincial government doesn’t consistently track or manage bull kelp habitat. It says environmental monitoring on issues like birds, kelp and amphibians is best left to citizen groups.

“We have seen lots of cuts in recent years in terms of environmental monitoring and basic science that allows us to address questions we need answers to,” said Colin Bates, professor of life sciences at Quest University.

And finding solutions to kelp bed losses is important, he added.

“It’s like saying, what will happen if we cut down all the trees? If we lose bull kelp habitat you lose the value and structural complexity of that area.”

The reasons kelp seems to be disappearing from coastlines is a mystery, according to marine ecologists.

There is speculation the bulbous algae has been affected by shoreline development, nutrient pollution, climate change and increased vessel traffic. The food web has also changed in places that have been over-fished or seen declined numbers of predators, leaving kelp grazer populations of urchins and crabs unchecked.

Some experts, like B.C. Parks aquatic ecologist Doug Biffard, believe kelp beds go through fluxes, making it difficult to tell if declines are because of human activity or natural cycles.

Whatever the reason, advocates are now questioning how they can restore the canopies. So far, experiments have shown only limited success.

“It’s not like restoring a salmon stream where you go to the library and borrow 15 books that explain the ecology, how habitat functions and what changes you can do … 50 years of [work went] into figuring that out,” said Brian Allen, an ecologist with the Washington-based Puget Sound Restoration Fund. “We are only in the early stages. We are writing the book right now on how to restore bull kelp habitat.”

 

A cross-border team effort is taking place to find solutions to the disappearing kelp forests.

No one has found the magic bullet yet, but with each group working on a different piece of the puzzle, Allen believes it’s only a matter of time.

The Puget Sound Restoration Fund, for example, has taken a step back from replanting work to investigate the life cycle of bull kelp. While ecologists understand how kelp functions in a lab, they don’t know the timing and progression of the algae in the wild, Allen said.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources believes it might also have something to contribute with the results of long-term monitoring. It has tracked bull and giant kelp along the Juan de Fuca Strait and outer coastline for more than two decades and has found a “significant increase” in kelp closest to the open ocean. There also seems to be a link in weather. In 1997 during one of the region’s strongest El Nino years, the coastline had one of its lowest kelp yields compared to a La Nina year in 2000 when kelp seemed to flourish. The work is helping scientists understand the overall trend in kelp and what leads to the potential success in some areas and decline in others, Berry said.

Help the Kelp volunteers are working to create their own stamp on reforestation efforts. They are documenting efforts to create an affordable, community-based solution to raising kelp that other groups can carry out.

It launched its third test project last week to start filling in gaps in the kelp ecosystem around Gabriola Island. A Google Earth mapping project earlier this year showed volunteers where kelp was most sparse.

Paul O’Sullivan, a volunteer, called the pilot project an exciting initiative. It is being done for pure reasons and “we are playing a small part in what may be in the future … a very, very important effort,” he said.

On Monday, volunteers replanted the second wave of kelp in Clark Bay.  Heart filled carboys with sori strips that volunteers had collected from healthier kelp beds around Gabriola Island, while O’Sullivan helped search for the right places to drop them. Weighted by a cement block on one end and a buoy on the other, the sori-filled carboys are anticipated to release tiny spores onto the ocean floor. There they will reproduce and begin to grow, creating a new forest of kelp.

Dr. Michael Mehta, professor of geography and environmental studies at Thompson Rivers University and coordinator of Help the Kelp, said the group is hopeful this process will work because it seems to mimic the natural life cycle.

“What we are doing is kind of like a hair transplant….[spores] are moved around from dense areas to less dense areas,” he said.

The group will know next spring whether its idea has taken root. At the end of the day, Mehta said Help the Kelp is about mobilizing people to take stewardship of the planet.

“It’s one of those things that has fallen through the cracks and … citizen scientists like us are finding those cracks … in environmental protection and filling them.”