An Underwater Snapshot of Kelp Health in Monterey

By Michael Esgro, Senior Biodiversity Program Manager & Tribal Liaison

It was 2013 in Monterey when I learned to scuba dive – one year before a record-breaking marine heatwave arrived off the California coast, bringing with it a “perfect storm” of changing ocean conditions that severely impacted kelp ecosystems across the state. As the heatwave persisted through 2016, much of the kelp off the Monterey Peninsula gradually disappeared. However, the story in Monterey is more nuanced in contrast to the region-wide devastation observed off of California’s north coast where over 95% of bull kelp has been lost in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties –  Monterey’s kelp has continued to persist in some places despite harsh conditions.

The CDFW’s lead on kelp management, Dr. Kristen Elsmore, conducting kelp surveys. Photo: Ralph Pace

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Urchin Removal on the North Coast Shows Promising Results for Kelp Forest Restoration

Close up of purple urchin

Photo: Stacy Hayden/Ocean Protection Council

June 28, 2022

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Mike Esgro, (818) 917-6468, Michael.Esgro@resources.ca.gov

Urchin Removal on the North Coast Shows Promising Results for Kelp Forest Restoration

Fort Bragg, Calif. – An unprecedented partnership on California’s north coast has concluded with the removal of nearly 50,000 pounds of purple urchins and positive signs of kelp forest recovery. The exciting results from two Mendocino County restoration sites demonstrate that commercial urchin fishermen can be extremely effective at targeted urchin removals, and that removals can facilitate bull kelp recovery when oceanographic conditions are favorable. The promising outcomes from this two-year effort will inform resource managers’ efforts to protect and restore threatened kelp forests across the state.

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MPA Monitoring Series: Ask the Researcher, Part 1: Kelp and Rocky Intertidal Ecosystems

scuba diver

Photo: Kelp diver, Credit: Koehn

OPC’s “Ask the Researcher” MPA monitoring webinar series officially launched in May! This summer series highlights key monitoring results from the marine protected area (MPA) monitoring program, connecting audience members directly to California’s leading MPA scientists who describe their research both inside and outside of MPAs along the California coast and answer questions from webinar participants. The webinar series is responsive to feedback heard through community meetings held by California Department of Fish and Wildlife last fall, where members of the public voiced interest in learning more about MPA science and connecting directly to the researchers who monitor California’s key habitats. Results from these monitoring projects, along with information from other sources, are foundational to informing California’s MPA Decadal Management Review, which will be presented to the California Fish and Game Commission in February 2023.   … read more

Impact Science

By Mark Gold, D.Env.

Yesterday, the OPC hosted its first in-person meeting in more than two years. Like all state agencies, we are trying to figure out the new normal with hybrid meetings – good online participation, but a public justifiably reluctant to return to large in-person meetings. Despite the low turnout yesterday in Sacramento, it was reassuring to see OPC Councilmembers and staff complete the essential work of the Council in the extraordinary, new CNRA auditorium. 

One of the reasons I was excited to be appointed by Governor Newsom as Executive Director of the OPC three years ago was the Council’s long-term focus on impact science: applied research that provides results that can enhance state marine resource decision making. Science that makes a difference. The June 14th meeting was a great example of the OPC’s focus on impact science.  … read more

California’s efforts to protect and restore kelp featured in new restoration guidebook and global review

A unique kelp restoration pilot project on California’s north coast has been featured in The Nature Conservancy’s new Kelp Restoration Guidebook. This guidebook was authored by an expert panel with support from managers, scientists, and restoration practitioners. It highlights kelp loss as a global, climate-driven phenomenon and offers lessons learned from kelp restoration efforts around the world – including California, which is emerging as a leader in this space thanks to effective and unprecedented partnerships between state agencies, nonprofits, and local communities.

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A Fighting Chance for North Coast Bull Kelp

Michael Esgro, OPC Marine Ecosystems Program Manager & Tribal Liaison

As a lifelong Monterey diver, I’ve been devastated to watch California’s once-lush kelp forests turn into “urchin barrens” seemingly overnight. I’ve also been deeply moved by conversations with my north coast diver brethren (both at public meetings in Sacramento and over beers in Noyo Harbor) about the devastating consequences that this ecological collapse has had on the economy, culture, and spirit of California’s north coast, where kelp declines have been the most severe. So when I was offered the chance to observe a new kelp restoration project in Mendocino County – a unique partnership between OPC, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Reef Check California, and local commercial fishermen – I threw a scuba tank in my truck and drove north without hesitation. And that’s how I found myself pulling on a wetsuit on a foggy Sunday morning, excited for an underwater tour of the Noyo Bay restoration site.

Alongside Tristin McHugh, Reef Check’s North Coast Regional Manager and my divemaster for this excursion, I dropped into the uncommonly clear water and soon came upon Pat and Grant Downie, a father-son team of commercial red sea urchin divers. Using only their hands and specially designed rakes, they were quickly clearing the reef of kelp-eating purple urchin, demonstrating a level of skill and efficiency that comes only with a lifetime of urchin diving. For reference, I participated in a recreational urchin removal event at Noyo Bay last summer, and I was proud of the 5 pounds I surfaced with. The Downies’ haul last Sunday? More than half a ton.

Diver

Commercial fisherman Grant Downie removing purple urchin from the reef at Noyo Bay. Photo: Tristin McHugh/Reef Check California

As Tristin and I made our way across the reef, I was impressed to see the progress that has been made since urchin removal operations started only a month ago. When I last saw this site, purple urchins were so dense that the ocean floor looked like a spiky purple carpet. Now, it was bare rock. And about halfway through the dive, I saw something I never thought I’d see at Noyo Bay again – several baby bull kelps growing on the newly cleared reef. I hovered over one for several minutes. This piece of algae was no bigger than my thumb, and it looked like such a fragile thing, especially compared to the towering forests that once stood here. But it also struck me as defiant, evidence of resilience in a changing ocean, new life in an environment that, up until a few weeks ago, seemed beyond redemption.

Kelp

Juvenile bull kelp growing on newly cleared reef. Photo: Tristin McHugh/Reef Check California

Back on the dock, as we watched divers hauling in basket after basket of purple urchin, I talked with colleagues about the sighting, and all of us (ecologists to the core) agreed we can’t yet say that urchin removal is directly responsible for kelp regrowth at Noyo Bay. That requires more data, and replication, and comparison with unmanipulated reference sites. In fact, it’s the central scientific question that we are trying to answer with this project. The image of that baby bull kelp stayed with me, though, as I drove home down Highway 1 and looked out at a coast that was once lined with thick brown tangles. We’re nowhere near the end of the story. But at a couple of spots in Mendocino County, we’re at least giving kelp a fighting chance.

Urchins

Landed purple urchins ready for processing and data collection. Photo: Mike Esgro/Ocean Protection Council

Divers

Dive team enjoying uncommonly clear and blue conditions at Noyo Bay last weekend. Photo: Tristin McHugh/Reef Check California