The beds of kelp floating just offshore of Port Townsend’s North Beach County Park are a fixture of the landscape, familiar to those who stroll the beach and kayak the waters …
The beds of kelp floating just offshore of Port Townsend’s North Beach County Park are a fixture of the landscape, familiar to those who stroll the beach and kayak the waters alike.
However, these beds are only just the canopy of a dense forest that rises from the bottom of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Among the stalks of bull kelp that grow to up to 130 feet long, an entire ecosystem of marine life thrives.
But while North Beach’s kelp forest may be rich with life, others across the Puget Sound and Salish Sea are disappearing, taking with them the ecosystems that depend on them.
It was the goal of studying and preserving this vibrant kelp forest that brought crews of researchers to North Beach in July. Some took to the water on kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, while others got on motorized boats and donned scuba suits, all in order to get up close to the kelp bed.
A research team from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund was joined by those from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the University of Washington, and local volunteer groups, among others.
Some teams took samples of kelp for cultivation and analysis, while other teams mapped the bed, measured water quality and searched for microplastic contamination. Other teams conducted surveys of the diverse plants and marine life that make up the forests, in order to form effective conservation and restoration targets.
A particular focus was on finding pinto abalone, an endangered species of sea snail.
“It was a glorious flotilla,” said Jodie Toft, who, as deputy director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, helped organize the July 16 event. And this flotilla was just one of many that assembled at regional kelp forests over the week, with Port Townsend serving as the second stop in the 2021 “Kelp Expedition.”
GREAT GROUP OF PARTNERS
The expedition was organized by the Restoration Fund in partnership with 14 regional and state organizations, agencies, and tribes. It commenced at Freshwater Bay, west of Port Angeles, on July 15, and concluded with a ceremony in Olympia July 23.
At each stop, local agencies, tribes, and other research groups have joined the flotilla to join in on the research.
The expedition’s goal, according to its website, is to explore the regions kelp forests through collaborative research and raise awareness of the forest’s importance to local ecosystems, cultures and economies, all in the aim of protecting and restoring these forests.
“At the heart of it, the expedition is about being on the water together and paying attention to what matters with our marine resources in this region,” Toft said, adding that it’s about “coming together so we as scientists, managers and tribal leaders in this region understand what it is that we need to do to act now in support of our really essential kelp forests.”
The original plan for the expedition, which dates back to early 2020, envisioned the researchers conducting their research side by side on larger boats.
However, the social distancing guidelines implemented by many organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the inclusion of individual watercraft into the game plan.
This style of collaborative research, however, has been met with an enthusiastic response, Toft said.
“We really like being out in our ragtag little kayaks and standing up on our paddle boards collecting kelp,” she said.”
“There’s something that feels really accessible about science that can be done just by swimming in the water, or floating easily on the water.”
A BEAUTIFUL THING
Another source of enthusiasm among the researchers was the condition of North Beach’s bed, which Toft called “rich” and “beautiful.”
The same goes for the bed off of Smith Island, just west of Whidbey Island, which is the largest persisting bed in Washington and was studied concurrently with North Beach.
While research continued at a bed off of McCurdy Point, west of North Beach, the bounty of Port Townsend’s beds were celebrated on Saturday, July 17 on the beach at Chetzemoka Park.
At the ceremony, more than 50 attendees honored the teams of local volunteers active in kelp restoration and preservation, as well as the S’Klallam tribe for their historic and continuing stewardship of the area’s natural resources, kelp included.
A highlight of the event, said Toft, was the speech and song by Loni Greninger, the vice chair of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s Tribal Council.
In her speech, Greninger spoke to the need for action on kelp restoration and the value of partnership in doing so. She also shared with the crowd the story of the local area and the S’Klallam people, as well as the cultural significance of kelp to her people.
Those in attendance feasted on Dungeness crab, local clams, and other seafood whose lives are directly or indirectly tied to kelp forests, as well as kelp itself, which was a key ingredient in most of the dishes served. Kelp jam, pesto, salsa, pickles, brownies, crisps and potato salad were just a few of the offerings.
This diverse spread demonstrated the broad utility of kelp to humans and not just the marine ecosystem, Toft said.
“That’s how we can celebrate a good marine ecosystem, is if we can eat food that comes from that ecosystem,” Toft said. “And you know it’s healthy.”
The ceremony also provided a necessary pause for the researchers as their time in the Strait of Juan de Fuca ended and a long week journeying down the Puget Sound began, a week that would bring them to far more sobering field sites.
At stops in Seattle, Indianola, Seattle, and Squaxin Island, crews have visited beds that are disappearing, or, as is the case off of Bainbridge Island, have disappeared.
Speaking shortly before the Chetzemoka ceremony, Toft knew that the high spirits after the north Sound field sites would soon dampen.
“It’s gonna be a little bit harder to see the beds that don’t look so good. But that’s part of the reason we’re doing all this; so that we can see what it looks like and then try to think of how we might actually take action and get inspired to do better for the beds that aren’t looking that great,” she said.
Indeed, the expedition was initiated to kickstart the Puget Sound Kelp Conservation and Recovery Plan, which was drafted between the Restoration Fund and its 14 partners in 2020, with a goal of imagining a restoration of thriving kelp forests in the Sound.
The plan, which received almost $1.5 million from the 2021 Washington State Legislature earlier this year, seeks to bring about “revitalized Puget Sound kelp forests stretching from Olympia to Vancouver, B.C. providing economic, recreational, and ecological benefits to all living things that call these shores and waters home.”
The plan’s primary goals include understanding the importance of kelp to Puget Sound ecosystems and the stressors affecting them, map out and survey important forests and their populations, restore these forests and designate certain areas for preservation, and promote awareness of the importance of kelp forests as well as community and inter-agency/organizational action.
Importance of Kelp
Puget Sound and the Salish Sea have 22 different kinds of kelp, making it a global hotspot for kelp biodiversity, Toft said.
The steady decline in kelp populations is putting this designation in jeopardy. The primary forces behind the dramatic loss of kelp forests in the Puget Sound include decreasing water quality, pollution runoff into regional watersheds, rising sea temperatures, increases in populations of invasive seaweed, and decreases in fish populations that leave destructive, kelp-eating urchins unchecked. All of these issues are compounded by climate change, Toft said, something that will only increase in the near future.
The disappearance of regional kelp forests could have devastating effect on aquatic ecosystems, as well as local economies and cultures, Toft said.
“Kelp are a powerhouse in the marine system that are oftentimes just overlooked,” she said, attributing this to the fact that, unlike dry forests, one cannot easily visit them.
Kelp forests do more than just provide shelter for marine life of all sizes.
Their decomposing tissue is eaten by species of plankton and bacteria, who are then eaten by small fish, who are eaten by even larger fish, making kelp the root of the “food web.” Dungeness crab, salmon, and orca whales — keystone species in the region and cultural resources to local indigenous peoples — are all supported by kelp forests. The kelp that washes ashore also provides a habitat for land-based insects and animals.
These marine forests are vital to our food chain, and central to our local culture and identity. In other words, kelp is integral to our sense of place.
Therefore, the loss of kelp can lead to a drop in populations of fish and shellfish that are vital to local economies and cultures. That’s not the only way that humans benefit from kelp.
Kelp forests, through photosynthesis, absorb more excess carbon than rainforests, coral reefs, and forests of seagrass, the Restoration Fund’s website explains.
“They’re working as a sponge in the marine environment, which is kind of what we need right now,” Toft said, referencing the rising atmospheric CO2 levels that is fueling global warming. Kelp forests also provide protection to coastlines, flattening choppy water with their dense canopies.
The “Kelp Highway” hypothesis posits that the first people in the Americas followed the kelp down the West Coast of the Americas, taking advantage of their calm waters and the ample food they offered such as salmon. Bull kelp fronds were crafted into tools for hunting and fishing, toys for children, and household items such as food storage containers.
However, Toft and the fund’s website stress that kelp is much more than just a historical highway for indigenous peoples, but a “lifeway” to this day.
Toft believes the best place to start in spreading awareness of kelp forests is to encourage people to go and visit ones near them.
“People should get out and visit this habitat and marvel in the wacky weirdness that is a giant bull kelp bulge and its long blades that are more than 20 feet tall,” Toft said. “It really is just a beautiful habitat to explore.”
And while there is no better way to visit a kelp forest than to snorkel through one, Toft realizes that this may not be for everybody.
However, there are other ways to experience kelp first hand.
“The great thing is that kelp washes up on the shoreline, so pick it up and play with it!” she said. “And if that isn’t your thing, take a kid with you, because they will.”
For more information on the expedition, visit tiny.cc/kelpforests.