by Vicki Thomas
What Are Underwater Forests?
Commonly called kelp forests, they are soaring stands of giant seaweed, often compared to the redwood forests on land. They aren’t plants, but are macroalgae that can grow to up to 2 feet a day and be as much as 150 feet tall. They grow along temperate and arctic shores around the world in waters shallow enough for light to reach to fuel their growth by photosynthesis. Some of the most famous kelp forests are in California, but Washington state is home to some of the most diverse kinds of kelp on earth. Aside from creating magical underwater environments, kelp forests form one of the most critical and productive ecosystems on the planet.
Why Kelp Forests Matter
Kelp is a superhero in the fight against climate change:
1. Like their land-based counterparts, kelp forests sequester carbon. Even though kelp forests are much reduced from even a few years ago, Washington state’s kelp forests alone take up an estimated 27–136 metric tons of carbon per day, which is equal to 2,000–10,5000 vehicle emissions per year. We know we must reduce overall emissions to keep earth’s temperature at a livable rate, but that is not likely to be enough. Kelp forests can help fill some of the gap.
2. As kelp forests remove carbon, they release oxygen. That cycle helps deacidify the water around them. Deacidifying the water means marine species like shellfish and others that are struggling can flourish again. Conversely, high carbon and low oxygen waters are dead zones where nothing can live.
3. Kelp forests provide food from the base to the top of the food chain, as well as providing marine habitat, nurseries and shelter, fostering vibrant biodiversity and increased fish stocks. Kelp forests support multibillion-dollar lobster, abalone and sea urchin fisheries and are key to salmon recovery. If we want salmon on our plates and orcas in our oceans, kelp forests are essential.
4. They filter excess nitrogen from the water, helping mitigate runoff from farms and lawns.
5. Added to cattle feed, kelp reduces cattle burps, which are a significant source of planetary methane.
6. They are being explored for their potential as sustainable bioplastics, textiles, packaging, fertilizer, biofuels and more.
7. Kelp forests protect beaches and coastlines by absorbing wave energy, reducing costly losses and damage from storm surges and erosion.
8. Kelp forests provide nutritious human food and are central in providing the abundance of seafood, marine life, jobs and recreational activities that are defining characteristics of the Pacific Northwest culture, commerce and our way of life.
9. The newest buzz around kelp forests is their potential for monetization as carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are a controversial scheme to allow companies to pay money to protect a carbon sequestering resource to offset their carbon emissions. Known as “blue carbon,” these kelp forest offsets are exciting to some as a way to protect and expand the kelp forests and make money doing it. However, there is a problem in that we don’t know exactly how much carbon the kelp forests sequester. Nor do we know exactly how to make the kelp forests grow and prosper.
Kelp Forests Are in Trouble
Kelp forests are declining globally and locally. Many have disappeared entirely. Northern California and Australia have lost as much as 96 percent of their kelp forests. The South and Central Puget Sound areas have lost as much as 90 percent over the last 150 years. They are falling victim to rising water temperatures, extreme weather events, pollution, pressure from fishing, invasive species, overharvesting by humans and overgrazing by predators. Of these, the most pressing problem is a green or purple spiny devil known as the sea urchin. Kelp-grazing sea urchins historically have been controlled by sea stars and sea otters. The near-extinction of sea otters and the sea star wasting disease caused by warming waters have led to massive urchin barrens where vibrant kelp forests once grew.
Revitalizing the Kelp Forests
There have been lots of attempts to restore or expand kelp forests over the last 300 years globally. While some have done well, many of those efforts have been small, limited and unsuccessful. Communication between efforts has been minimal or nil. As the interest in conserving, restoring and expanding the kelp forests rose, it became apparent there needed to be a central knowledge repository of what worked and what didn’t.
Enter the Kelp Forest Alliance, a collaborative that brings together scientific articles, news articles, detailed information on prior restoration efforts and connects individuals and organizations around the globe. They have consolidated the lessons learned from prior efforts into a comprehensive guidebook for restorers to increase their chances of success.
If you have hordes of kelp-killing sea urchins, what do you do? Eat them, of course. That’s what start-up Urchinomics.com aims to do. They pay fishermen to collect urchins to bring to their “ranch” where the urchins are fed to produce roe, which makes them valuable as a human food source. Once urchins are removed from barren kelp beds, the kelp forests can re-establish themselves in as little as three to four months.
Greenwave.org, founded by a former fisherman turned ocean farmer, has a 10-year goal of launching a base of 10,000 regenerative ocean (seaweed) farmers by providing the training, tools and support necessary to plant one million acres, enough to provide significant positive climate and economic impacts, all with an eye to climate justice. With the support of some mighty partners, The Nature Conservancy, Patagonia, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NOAA, 350.org and Sierra Club, just to name a few, they may well succeed.
State and Local Initiatives
• On June 9 this year, the Kelp Forest and Eelgrass Meadow Conservation Initiative went into effect. Sponsored by Senator Liz Lovelett and Representative Sharon Shewmake, this bill requires that, by Dec 1 2023, the DNR submit a plan and framework that will conserve at least 10,000 acres of kelp and eelgrass by 2040. In a running start to the program, a new tidal reserve has been created by Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz. The reserve, which runs along Priest Point on the Tulalip reservation will protect 2,300 acres from development for the next 50 years, with the aim of giving eelgrass and kelp an opportunity to flourish.
• In 2020, spearheaded by the Northwest Straits Commission, the Puget Sound Kelp Conservation and Recovery Plan was launched. The plan aims to better understand and manage kelp forests, reduce the stressors that harm them, designate protected areas, restore kelp forests and to promote action by tribes, the public and policy makers.
• Blue Dot Sea Farms is one of two licensed seaweed farmers in Washington state. Located on the Hood Canal, it grows shellfish along with seaweed. The seaweed cleans the water so it’s easier for the shellfish to thrive, and then the seaweed becomes a separate marketable crop.
• Washington’s second licensed seaweed farm, Lummi Island Sea Greens, is set to open soon near Bellingham. It will be located in five acres near Legoe Bay. If successful, it will produce up to 25 tons of seaweed per acre and provide abundant local supplies of nutrient-rich seaweed while improving water quality and providing habitat for marine life.
• The Seattle Aquarium and the Port of Seattle are beginning a research project this summer to make recommendations for restoration of kelp in Elliott Bay.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Kelp forests are an incredible resource in the fight against climate change and in the effort to feed the planet. Kelp as a farmed product requires no fresh water, no fertilizer and no pesticides. It does require protection from predatory species, especially sea urchins, and solid research to find ways to help it thrive in warming seas.
We are at the research and experimentation stage of kelp forest recovery and flourishing. There is a long way to go. The good news is that there is growing recognition of the value of these underwater forests and some excellent first steps have been taken.
What You Can Do
• Spread the word. Tell three other people how amazing kelp forests are.
• Tell your Congressional representative that you want them to support HR 4458, the KELP Act, which would provide national funding for kelp forest preservation and restoration.
• Thank state Senator Lovelett, Representative Shewmake and Governor Inslee for the Kelp Forest and Eelgrass Meadow Conservation Initiative bill here in Washington state. Let them know you are interested in more action to restore and expand kelp forests.
• Keep runoff out of the ocean by avoiding the use of pesticides on your lawn/garden, or use natural products.
• Carwashes treat the water they use, so use them rather than washing your own car.
• Only eat sustainable seafood as recommended by the Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program (seafoodwatch.org).
• Stay clear of kelp forests if you are out boating.
Visit a Kelp Forest Virtually:
• Oceana’s Kelp Forest Experience https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuyeX-3uOHM
• Underwater Forests: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcbU4bfkDA4
• Grab a little zen with Monterey Bay’s 30 Minutes of Cold Water Magic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIJFTbAS6S0
• “The Power of Kelp” video, research and experiments in Puget Sound https://wsg.washington.edu/new-video-explores-the-power-of-kelp/
• “Exploring Puget Sound’s Kelp Forests” It’s a “WOW” visual learning experience https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/124e9d24ec1d4e419ea4e32a5ccb42fa.
• Global kelp forest restoration: past lessons, present status, and future directions https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/brv.12850
Vicki Thomas has a degree in political science from George Washington University. She retired as the chief operating officer of a small California e-commerce company and moved to Bellingham in 2015. Vicki was a team-lead volunteer for the Community Research Project, a county outreach project sponsored by the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee. She is a currently cochair of the League of Women Voters Climate Committee.