Bull Kelp — What is it and Why does it matter?

Francesca Koe
Apr 24, 2018 · 6 min read
Bull kelp glistens on the surface (photo by Jackie Hildering)

Northern California is a special place for me. While it’s true that it is also ecologically, culturally and economically one of the most significant places on earth, for me and my neighbors, it is important simply because it is our home. But we all chose Northern California as home because it is extraordinary. I learned to dive in Nor Cal and then became an instructor, which transformed my life; I met my husband in the Bay Area, and married him along the kelp covered coast at Russian Gulch State Park; we discovered a whole new universe in the largest, wildest and most diverse ocean on our planet — the Pacific Ocean. Yet as mighty as our ocean may appear at times, what is occurring beneath the surface is a delicate symphony of interconnected and ever-changing relationships that can tumble like dominoes when the dynamics are out of whack.

Sadly, in recent years we’ve witnessed the precipitous decline of a keystone ingredient in our local marine ecosystem — Bull kelp forests have been completely devastated and so we have to figure out how to cultivate their resiliency and restore the balance.

Aerial survey maps courtesy of CDFW

Just as the iconic Tony Bennett song says, “I left my heart in San Francisco”. My metaphorical heart clings like a hold-fast at the base of a kelp stalk, to the substrate of raw rocky reef found along the coastlines of Sonoma and Mendocino. Even though I was not born on the West Coast, like so many other adventurous souls, marine mammals and seabirds I quickly migrated to the northern region of the Golden State, as I was drawn to its unparalleled natural beauty, unique marine ecosystem and bustling centers of innovation. For more than 20 years Nor Cal has been my place of work, play and personal resilience. Which is why I will always strive to do my part to keep it wild and special.

Part of the secret-sauce recipe for the special nature of our region is located just off the coast of the San Francisco Bay. One of only five major cold-water upwellings occurs in our backyard — these nutrient-rich waters attract & feed more animals because of their intrinsic fertility, and as a result more ecological productivity occurs along our Nor Cal shores than most, as does the presence of kelp forests. What does all this ecological productivity mean? Well typically it means more fish and more seafood for the many mouths that have come to rely on this prolific phenomenon — animals and homo-sapiens alike. In northern California, majestic coastal mountains are matched (and even outgunned) by stunning underwater canyons, reefs and pinnacles which have historically been adorned with nereocyctis, or bull kelp. Bull kelp forests provide a critical foundation for our nearshore coastal ecosystem.

Rock fish take cover under the bull kelp canopy (photo by Jackie Hildering)

Sheltering young fish and offering itself as food, the canopy of brown algae contributes to the overall health and viability of iconic species such as the red abalone. Red abalone are not only an important part of the marine ecosystem but a huge driver of tourism dollars and recreational activities for the 6th largest economy on earth.

The author (post freediving for abalone) on the Sonoma Coast

But in recent years the bull kelp forests have collapsed; for the past five years California’s kelp forests have dramatically decreased by over a whopping 90%! Though the numbers may vary slightly year over year, what we have observed is an extremely troubling downward trend, which when coupled with (or aggravated by as the case may be) a confluence of other stressors, causes a chaotic, perfect storm of decimation for this essential building block of habitat. Between “the Blob” and its hotter sea-surface temperatures, the west-coast dirge of mysterious deaths among sea stars, (sea stars such as the sunflower star are the predators that normally keep voracious eaters of kelp in check), and an unprecedented explosion of purple urchin barrens , our normally hardy bull kelp can’t catch a break to recover.

Urchin literally mowing down the bull kelp (photo by Jackie Hildering)

But spirits in our region are still intrepid & hardy, and the good news is that there is action to spearhead the recovery and management of bull kelp. Experts and vital stakeholders from every walk of life are coming together to collaborate on a Kelp Recovery Program. Through a multi-phased, science-based collaborative project initiated by the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (and its non-profit partner the Greater Farallones Association,) the Kelp Recovery Program aims to restore kelp populations along the California coast. I am very proud to be co-chairing this working group, (as a member of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council,) along with Dr. Cynthia Catton from the CA Department of Fish & Wildlife. Together with NOAA staff, recreational and commercial users, regional scientists representing government agencies and universities, NGO and education representatives, and myriad community leaders we will examine existing research and current case studies (outside of our region) to explore and identify the best way to facilitate recovery and increase the resilience of bull kelp forest ecosystems.

Our project objectives include the following:

  • Synthesize available data and identify knowledge gaps.
  • Identify ways to streamline and/or enhance scientific collaboration and monitoring.
  • Evaluate restoration and recovery efforts implemented in similar ecosystems across the US West coast, and develop effective policy and management recommendations for the north coast region.
  • Document the direct and indirect importance of kelp to coastal communities and the socio-ecological impacts of widespread declining kelp forests.
  • Identify pathways for community engagement and outreach.

Our first meeting of the work group is fast approaching (it is in fact this week!) so I hope you will stay tuned as the process unfolds. I will continue to share via the blog what we are learning, how it is all going and how you can support the restoration of bull kelp forests and the fisheries, seabirds, marine mammals and humans that rely on them.

Diving in the kelp (photo by Jackie Hildering)

If you’d like to dive right in because you are itching to help out immediately, I invite you to come to the Sonoma coast on Memorial Day weekend to join the Waterman’s Alliance (and people from a wide swath of Bay Area communities as well,) for a grassroots urchin removal festival to give the kelp at Ocean Cove a fighting chance. Citizens are needed to dive, kayak, take pictures, carry buckets and join in the fun of a beautiful day by the sea.

Francesca Koe

Written by

Ocean Advocate, Dive Instructor, former Director of Strategic Initiatives at @NRDC

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