untangle bull kelp
Untangle bull kelp

As part of the kelp restoration project in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, scientists at Bodega Marine Lab are preparing to transplant young bull kelp into the ocean. In the coming weeks, they will secure clay bricks with specially infused twine and place them in Drakes Bay. This innovative approach aims to revive the once thriving kelp forest ecosystem.

In an effort to revive the dwindling bull kelp population, researchers will saturate the twine with reproductive cells of baby kelp. This experiment is expected to play a crucial role in preserving the fundamental pillar of the entire North Coast marine ecosystem. Over the past decade, more than 90% of the once-thriving bull kelp forest along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts has vanished due to environmental stressors and changes in ocean ecology.

With high hopes, researchers anticipate that their experiment could be the solution to the survival of the kelp, potentially leading to the regeneration of lost kelp beds along the Sonoma Coast starting as early as this autumn. The baby kelp currently being cultivated in tanks at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab is too minuscule to be seen with the naked eye, barely leaving a trace of color on a clear microscope slide with a single water drop.

The Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the nonprofit Greater Farallones Association are collaborating on this experiment. Their objective is to determine the most effective method for culturing and collecting kelp reproductive material, which will then be introduced to specific offshore locations. Once the twine infused with the kelp’s reproductive cells is deployed into Drakes Bay, experts will closely monitor the growth and spreading of the kelp. This stage of the process is referred to as “outplanting” by scientists.

This initiative is part of a comprehensive project that seeks to restore approximately 27 acres of kelp forest habitat in four strategic coastal locations: Fort Ross Cove and Timber Cove initially, followed by Ocean Cove and Stillwater Cove. As part of the plan, professional divers will be employed to clear large clusters of purple urchins from the outplanting sites. This will help alleviate the grazing pressure on the newly introduced kelp. Additionally, the divers will conduct surveys to map the kelp canopy, allowing for ongoing monitoring of natural growth and providing valuable insights into the project’s progress in the coming weeks and months.

Julieta Gomez and Rachael Karm untangle bull kelp used for a restoration project
Kelp restoration specialist Julieta Gomez, left, and coastal ecology and conservation laboratory technician Rachael Karm, untangle bull kelp used for a restoration project

Jennifer Stock, the media liaison for the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries, emphasized the urgency of the situation, stating:

“We are simultaneously learning and taking action. If we don’t intervene, we could witness the extinction of the kelp forest.”

The devastating decline of the North Coast’s kelp forest can be attributed to an ongoing marine heat wave and the suppression of nutrient-rich cold upwelling in the area. Furthermore, a proliferation of purple urchins, which feed on kelp, has caused their populations to skyrocket to over 60 times their historical numbers due to the absence of natural predators impacted by disease.

Rietta Hohman, the Kelp Restoration Project Manager for the marine sanctuary and the Greater Farallones Association, as well as an affiliate of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, acknowledged that while there was a slight recovery in kelp growth the previous year, 2022 witnessed significantly diminished levels. She highlighted ongoing efforts, such as the culling of urchins by commercial and recreational divers at strategic locations over the past six years. Additionally, some scientists are engaged in captive breeding programs for sunflower sea stars, which are the natural predators of urchins, with the hope of reintroducing them to the coastal waters in the future.

Scientists at Bodega Bay and other research centers are actively exploring various strategies to restore kelp beds. These methods include utilizing spores or different stages of young kelp attached to different materials like gravel, bricks, pavers, and twine. The restoration effort involves collaboration and networking among government agencies, nonprofits, and academic labs. Recognizing the vital significance of the kelp forest ecosystem, which serves as a crucial habitat and food source for numerous aquatic organisms while also providing storm surge protection and carbon sequestration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Greater Farallones Marine Sanctuary are taking on leadership roles in this endeavor.

“It’s an incredibly valuable habitat for us,” Stock emphasized.

Julieta Gomez and Rachael Karm untangle bull kelp used for a restoration project
Julieta Gomez and Rachael Karm untangle bull kelp used for a restoration project

To support the restoration efforts, the nonprofit Greater Farallones Association received $2 million in funding from Congress last year, and it is expected to receive an additional $4.9 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Overall, approximately $9 million has been allocated from various sources, according to Hohman. At the Bodega Marine Lab, two young scientists, Rachael Karm and Julieta Gomez, who previously studied together at UC Santa Cruz and Sonoma State University, have developed a procedure using kelp blades provided by San Jose State University’s Moss Landing Marine Labs. These kelp blades serve as the genetic material for their experiment, contributing to the ongoing research.

To initiate the process, kelp blades are placed in two outdoor tanks, creating dark patches called sori as they mature, which contain the spores. These sori are carefully treated to ensure successful spore release. After being washed in iodine and rinsed in cold seawater, the sori are dried.

This method, described by Karm, a laboratory technician for the Hughes Lab at Sonoma State University, and Gomez, a kelp restoration specialist with the Greater Farallones Association and a NOAA affiliate, prepares the spores for the next step. The spores are then placed in tanks containing clay bricks wrapped with twine. The tanks are illuminated by indoor grow lights, creating an ideal environment for the spores to settle and develop into young kelp plants. Over time, these young plants have the potential to grow into towering kelp that spans from the ocean floor to the water’s surface.

Julieta Gomez and Rachael Karm untangle bull kelp used for a restoration project
Julieta Gomez and Rachael Karm untangle bull kelp used for a restoration project

In collaboration with the Hughes Lab, Gomez and Karm anticipate heading out to Drakes Bay to “outplant” the twine that has been infused with kelp. The results of this test will guide the subsequent deployment of young kelp at Fort Ross and Timber Cove later this year. These sites were selected based on their historical kelp growth and ease of access. The protected waters of these locations provide researchers with ample opportunities to conduct their work, as mentioned by Hohman.

Hohman stated that the pilot project, in collaboration with Sonoma State University and the Moss Landing Marine Lab, will be expanded next year. Karm, who has dedicated three years to studying kelp loss, likens it to underwater deforestation, comparing its impact to a devastating wildfire that is often unseen by many.

“It’s truly heartbreaking that it’s not receiving the recognition it deserves,” she expressed. “It’s devastating to witness this catastrophe and observe people who rely on it being unaware of what’s happening.”