Google Earth used to track kelp forests

Volunteers on Gabriola Island hope they can stop the disappearance of underwater forests by replanting bull kelp.

Citizen scientists are using Google Earth to track disappearing ‘underwater forests’ along the coastline of Gabriola Island.

Help the Kelp – a volunteer organization of citizen scientists – has been carefully plotting beds of bull kelp on Google Earth this summer to help track the trend of disappearing marine habitat.

Volunteers say the number of bull kelp seems to have dropped at an alarming rate around the Gulf Islands, jeopardizing an ecosystem used by small sea creatures, fish and birds. They want to know why and help reverse the phenomena.

The group  will look at public education and kelp restoration work this fall.

“This isn’t something that has been studied well so the goal is to explore it through citizen science,” said Michael Mehta, a member of Help the Kelp. “It’s like bird counts except we not only want to count and measure the kelp, but intervene and find out what went wrong with the ecosystem.”

Efforts to address dwindling kelp started in 2009, as Gabriola residents started to take note of fewer canopies in coastal waters. Old timers recalled kelp so thick in the 1950s they couldn’t row through it, said Victor Anthony, a founding member of Help the Kelp.

Kelp is much more sparse now, he said.

Other Gulf Islands have also noticed the change – a concern because kelp, like forests, produces oxygen for the planet and absorbs carbon dioxide, kelp advocates say.

Hornby Island has started kelp restoration and Mayne Island has been mapping kelp beds along its coastline. Gabriola Islanders will take the health of kelp beds into their own hands this fall, when they plan to start ‘planting’ spores.

New maps on Google Earth will help them track the success of restoration. They also plan to hand maps out to tug boat operators and logging companies so they can avoid large kelp canopies. Log booms may have been mowing down kelp, with dead zones found near Harmac Mill in Nanaimo.

“This isn’t any different than a group of people wanting to save old growth trees,” Anthony said. “This is an ecosystem and when something changes this dramatically … we need to bring attention to it.”