Kelp forests are unique ecosystems that tend to go unnoticed. To scientists, they are known as “sequois of the sea” because of their ability to absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, making them essential to fight ocean acidification. Besides being beneficial to the ocean ecosystem, they also benefit the coastal community. Not only are they a great attraction for ecotourism, but they are also essential to help reduce coastal erosion. They also have cultural significance.
Kelp forests are found in shallow, cold and clear waters. While many people think that kelp are plants based on how they appear, they are actually large brown algae. Kelp forests are located on the west coast of North America and are made of a variety of different species of kelp. They span up from the sea bed and grow all the way to the top of the water in order to photosynthesize. Some can reach the height of 150ft and grow at a rate of 18 inches per day. Kelp grows in dense clumps, therefore acting as an underwater forest.
Just like a traditional forest, they too are home to and provide food for a variety of marine life. Thousands of fish, invertebrates and algae live among the kelp forests and use them for shelter and food. Some even use them as a nursery. Larger mammals, like sea birds, sea otters, sea lions and even gray whales, have been seen to use the kelp forests for shelter or to escape predators. However, sharks often use the kelp forests as hunting grounds as it is easy for them to blend into them.
Just like all ecosystems, kelp forests undergo a variety of different threats. Natural causes, such as storms, El Nino, crustaceans, climate change, changes in sea currents, and an increase in sea urchin populations, can force the kelp forest to weaken. The sea urchins issue remains under control as long as the sea otter population is stable. Sea otters love to snack on sea urchins and therefore play an important role in their population management. If their management gets out of hand, sea urchins can destroy 30 meters of kelp forests per month. An increase in sea urchins can occur from oil spills or sea otter disease, decreasing the otter population to a level where they can’t keep up with the sea urchins.
Kelp forests also face threats from unnatural causes. Fishing, pollution, increased sedimentation caused from run off, and kelp harvesting also play a role in the unbalanced health of the ecosystem. However, the greatest threat comes from kelp harvesting. In World War I (WWI) kelp was harvested to create potash. The potash was then used for gunpowder and fertilizers. Just after the end of WWI, kelp harvesting hit an all time high of 400,000 tones in 1919. In the 30’s kelp was starting to be used in pharmaceuticals, food, and as a thickening or gelling substance. Today, kelp is still present as a bonding agent in a variety of different products. Algin is the bonding agent extracted from kelp. Kelp can be found in salad dressing, toothpaste, shampoo, dairy products, cakes, frozen foods, pudding, and within paint and cosmetics.
In order to protect the delicate kelp forests, there needs to be an increase in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPAs are an environmentally conscious form of area based management and conservation. They are used to help keep the whole marine environment healthy instead of focusing on just one species. MPAs are also a useful tool for researchers and policy makers. Research divers in California dive within the MPAs and analyse the ecosystem through assessing fish, invertebrates and algae at four different depths. Along with plastic pollution, a decrease in runoff from agriculture, wastewater, and stormwater needs to occur to protect the delicate kelp forest.
While there are no current alternatives to using kelp within a variety of products, it’s important that we harvest it sustainably. By only taking what we need and including them in MPAs, we are able to help keep the kelp forest ecosystem around for future generations. All ecosystems play an important role in keeping the ocean healthy.