Thursday, 18 July 2024

California launches kelp forest restoration project in Mendocino County

FORT BRAGG, Calif. – Commercial red sea urchin divers today will begin removing purple urchins in support of kelp restoration at two sites on California’s North Coast.

The divers, who have struggled to fish since the recent collapse of kelp forest ecosystems on the North Coast, will remove kelp-eating purple urchins at Noyo Bay and Caspar Cove in Mendocino County.

This project is supported by Ocean Protection Council funds and represents a novel partnership between OPC, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Reef Check California (a community science NGO), and local commercial fishermen.

In recent years, climate-driven changes in marine ecosystems have devastated kelp forests worldwide, from Tasmania to British Columbia.

On California’s once-lush North Coast, kelp has collapsed seemingly overnight – more than 95 percent of the offshore kelp canopy in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties has been lost since 2013.

Scientists attribute this unprecedented decline to a “perfect storm” of changing ocean conditions, including persistent marine heat waves, disease and die offs of sea stars and an explosion in purple sea urchin populations.

Kelp is a foundational species for marine ecosystems on the California coast, and the transition from healthy forests to underwater deserts known as “urchin barrens” has caused significant loss of kelp forest ecosystem services. This includes the collapse of both the recreational red abalone and commercial red sea urchin fisheries.

In response, the California Ocean Protection Council, or OPC, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have partnered with local commercial fishermen to attempt kelp restoration at an unprecedented scale.

A team of 16 commercial sea urchin divers will be paid to remove purple sea urchins on 10 acres of reef at Noyo Bay and five acres of reef at Caspar Cove.

The effort will be scientifically monitored by Reef Check California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving California’s rocky reefs through citizen science. OPC is providing $500,000 in funding for this unique project, in support of its mission to protect California’s coast and ocean.

“This project will provide a scientific basis for evaluating the efficacy of moderate-scale urchin removal, while providing social and economic benefits to the broader North Coast community – particularly fishermen who have been among the hardest-hit by this climate-driven crisis,” said Michael Esgro, OPC’s Marine Ecosystems Program Manager.

The launch of this project was initially delayed due to COVID-19, but strict health and safety protocols are now in place that will enable the project to move forward. In order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, strict social distancing will be maintained on vessels, and project participants will be required to wear masks at all times.

Pre- and post-restoration ecological surveys at removal and reference sites will help to assess the ecosystem’s response to urchin removal.

Reef Check will collaborate with OPC, CDFW and academic partners to provide high-quality data that can inform future restoration efforts.

“This highly collaborative project will improve our understanding of practical kelp restoration techniques in California. Along with other research being conducted on the north coast and throughout the state, this work will better inform our kelp restoration planning efforts,” said James Ray, CDFW’s Kelp Restoration coordinator.

An anomalous, climate-driven heat wave is implicated in the region’s stark kelp decline. In 2014, the appearance of a warm mass in the North Pacific – known known as “The Blob” – was followed by severe El Nino conditions, causing persistent warming through mid-2016. Bull kelp is highly sensitive to changes in temperature, and warmer water holds fewer nutrients, limiting the ability of new kelp to establish and grow.

Further, sea star wasting disease along the U.S. Pacific coast resulted in the collapse of sunflower sea star populations, a major predator of purple sea urchins on the North Coast. Kelp struggled to cope with increased temperatures, while the absence of sea stars coupled with increased urchin reproductive success and food stress resilience, allowed purple urchin populations to explode and graze kelp forests down to bare rock.

These shifts resulted in the closure of the recreational red abalone fishery (California’s only remaining abalone fishery) in 2018 and a federal declaration of a commercial fishery failure of the north coast commercial red urchin fishery.

“We look forward to determining whether creating small kelp refugia along the North Coast might help to accelerate recovery more broadly across the region,” said Dr. Mark Gold, OPC’s executive director. “These findings will inform future restoration and recovery efforts as California seeks to safeguard iconic kelp forest ecosystems and vibrant coastal communities against the threat of climate change.”

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