THE SUQUAMISH PEOPLE call this marshy stretch of coastline Doe-Kag-Wats, or “Place of Deer.” Decades ago, massive rafts of bull kelp floated here off the Kitsap Peninsula. Rising from ropy stalks anchored on the seafloor, the prodigious algae unfurled slick, brown fronds that bobbed on the surface like banners.
This underwater forest nurtured an ecosystem rich in marine life. Young rockfish and salmon sought shelter in its tangled mass, fattening up on the abundance of tiny creatures that flourished there. Herring flashed silver-bright among the tangles. Seals glided through, seeking prey.
“It was part of the landscape,” says Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. Fishermen knew to steer clear of entanglement but also appreciated the algae’s importance to the salmon they sought. “I think they had an understanding that it was part of a healthy ecological system.”
Forsman heard about the kelp from his father and other elders, who — like generations before them — considered the estuary a sacred place. By the time he was a boy visiting the beach with his family, the algae were mostly gone.
After an oil spill fouled the coast in the early 2000s and the tribe was considering ways to repair the damage, Forsman recalled those stories about once-abundant kelp. Was it possible, he wondered, to bring it back?
That seed of an idea more than a decade ago helped inspire an ambitious new initiative to figure out why kelp is vanishing throughout much of Puget Sound, and to reverse the trend. Bringing together tribes, citizen scientists, environmental agencies, university researchers and advocates, it is the type of collaboration that’s often sought but rarely achieved.
That cooperative spirit was on display this summer during an expedition the flamboyant French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau would have loved. Marking the symbolic launch of the Puget Sound Kelp Conservation and Recovery Plan, the voyage mobilized a flotilla of three dozen vessels and a rotating cast of nearly 200 participants to collect data, log observations and share insights at a dozen sites from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Olympia.
Just as Cousteau used his explorations onboard the RV Calypso to educate and advocate for safeguarding the seas, the kelp expedition also had a message to share: Underwater forests are as crucial to the Northwest’s marine environment as the region’s signature woodlands are to its terrestrial landscape.
“Interest in kelp is just exploding because we’re losing it and people are beginning to understand its importance to the ecosystem,” says retired biologist Tom Mumford, aka @KaptnKelp, who started studying seaweed for Washington’s Department of Natural Resources in 1976. “The encouraging thing is that we’ve got more people working together on this than I’ve ever seen before.”
One of the expedition’s stops was here at Doe-Kag-Wats, a short hop across the Sound from Seattle. Under overcast skies, divers and researchers on paddleboards converged on a small cluster of kelp plants, measuring bulbs with calipers and sampling fronds. But the assemblage of algae sprouting here today is unlike anything Forsman or his father ever saw in nature.
PUGET SOUND IS HOME to one of the world’s richest cornucopias of kelps, second only to Japan. Of the 22 species found here, one looks like a cluster of miniature palm trees. Another is named for its resemblance to a feather boa. Only two species — giant kelp, found mostly on the outer coast, and bull kelp — can be easily monitored because of the dense, buoyant mats they form.
Labyrinths of seaweed as tall as a four-story building are navigational hazards, so nautical charts and maps dating to the 1870s note the location of major beds. In the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the state’s Pacific Coast, most of those forests remain as thick and lush as they were when steamships held sway.
Inland waters are where the decline has been most precipitous. DNR surveys estimate about 60% to 80% of the bull kelp in Central and South Puget Sound has vanished in the past century. Volunteer kayakers monitoring kelp beds in Snohomish County recently documented the disappearance of large beds off Mukilteo and Meadowdale Beach.
The last bull kelp bed off Bainbridge Island blinked out in 2017, says Helen Berry, DNR’s nearshore habitat program manager.
“It was really sad for us to watch that go.”
Kelp can fluctuate seasonally and responds to broader climate patterns, like El Niño cycles, but researchers estimate a third of ecosystems worldwide are in decline. Some of the most calamitous losses have hit California, Australia and Tasmania.
The causes aren’t entirely clear, though marine heat waves like the recent “Blob” parked off the West Coast almost certainly play a role. The state of Washington can’t fight global climate change on its own, but local factors such as declining water quality and increased sedimentation are probably important, as well, Berry says.
Crabs that feed on bull kelp also appear to be on the upswing in some parts of Puget Sound. In California, spikes in water temperatures coincided with a population explosion of kelp-eating purple sea urchins, which in turn was triggered by the die-off of sea stars that normally keep the urchins in check.
As when forests are clear-cut, the disappearance of bull kelp ripples throughout the marine ecosystem.
Fast-growing kelp beds rival tropical rainforests in their ability to capture solar energy and convert it into living biomass. Studies using isotopic analysis to trace carbon from kelp find that bits of the brown algae constantly flake off and nourish a food web that starts with microscopic organisms and leads directly to many of the region’s iconic creatures. Off Vancouver Island, more than half the carbon in some rockfish can be traced to kelp. Cormorants in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands derive as much as 70% of their carbon from the algae.
Federal biologists charged with crafting a recovery plan for threatened and endangered rockfish species quickly realized kelp had to be part of the picture because the fish require it for their survival.
“A lot of people don’t know they care about kelp, but they do because they care deeply about many of the animals that rely on kelp,” says Berry. “Kelp beds support forage fish, which birds eat, which salmon eat. Then orcas eat the salmon.”
The overriding goal of the new kelp plan is to identify what’s harming kelp in Puget Sound and use that knowledge to protect remaining kelp beds.
“You really need to figure out what went wrong, and you’ve got to fix that,” Mumford says.
The state Legislature pledged $1.4 million over the next two years to help jump-start the effort. Among the projects already underway are experiments at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratory exposing young kelp from different parts of the Sound to varying combinations of temperature and nutrients to identify possible limiting factors.
Kelp still thrives in some unexpected pockets, like off Lincoln Park in West Seattle and Point Defiance in Tacoma. A healthy forest is even hanging on in Elliott Bay. Figuring out what makes those places so advantageous could help prevent future degradation.
“It’s a mystery,” Berry says.
For places like Doe-Kag-Wats, where kelp has been absent for decades, researchers are trying something new: attempting to reestablish underwater forests in the same way timber companies replant Douglas firs.
IT’S OBVIOUS THERE’S something odd about the kelp offshore from Suquamish tribal land. Instead of the jumble of a natural bed, the plants are arrayed in neat rows.
That’s because they sprouted from special cords seeded with spores and pinprick-size baby plants. The cords stretch just above the bottom, strung between concrete blocks like underwater clotheslines.
With their buoyant air bladders, the kelp plants tug the line upward as they grow toward the sunlight, says Hilary Hayford, who’s surveying the scene from a converted lobster boat pressed into service for the expedition. As habitat research director for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, Hayford is here to help evaluate the nonprofit’s efforts to cultivate kelp in the wild.
It’s been a lot of trial and error, she says — largely because bull kelp’s life cycle is so complex. Plants that can reach 70 feet long originate as microscopic male and female gametes that combine to form the teensy precursors of towering algae. Bull kelp is an annual plant, which means the entire cycle repeats every year. Maturing plants can grow nearly 2 feet a day.
After fine-tuning their laboratory propagation techniques and determining that late winter is the best time to “outplant,” Hayford and her team were successful in getting plants to grow here last year. They’re repeating the experiment this year with four times as much kelp.
“The seeding was wildly successful,” she says.
What they haven’t been able to do is create self-sustaining populations that reproduce on their own. “We don’t know how much kelp you need to put in place before it’s creating enough (spores) for the next year,” Hayford says, pulling on a wet suit. She drops her paddleboard into the water and climbs on, rowing quickly to join a group of divers working among the fronds.
Also poised to slip into the water is University of Chicago ecologist Cathy Pfister, who has been studying some of Washington’s healthiest kelp forests around Neah Bay. Now she wants to compare plants from flourishing beds to those from more marginal areas.
The idea is to look for physiological and metabolic differences or shifts in the microbial communities that live on the kelp and might be as crucial to plant health as gut microbes are to human health, Pfister explains, adjusting her mask and snorkel before taking the plunge.
When the researchers return to the boat, neither is optimistic this will be the season the farmed kelp reproduces on its own.
Pfister collected several fronds and points out that they are thinner and more tattered than those from lush natural beds. Hayford was examining the algae for specialized patches of cells that produce spores, but she didn’t see many.
“They’re struggling,” she says. “So I’m not going to hold my breath until next spring.”
ON THE FOLLOWING day, the expedition’s stops include Elliott Bay, where the Port of Seattle also has been experimenting with ways to protect and regenerate kelp. Joining the armada in a small gill-netter is Louie Ungaro, a former commercial fisherman who is now a member of the Muckleshoot Tribal Council.
Pulling up next to a Port research vessel, Ungaro leans over the side and describes how he grew up fishing with his mom and dad in the bay. “When I was a little kid, I used to run the boat back in the morning so my parents could sleep,” he says. “I would have to stay a mile off the beach because it was so full of kelp.”
Remnants remain, including a thick bed near the Elliott Bay Marina, says George Blomberg, an environmental program manager for the Port.
He and his colleagues are cruising near the Edgewater Hotel, testing an underwater robot called RINGO to see whether it can be used to survey and collect samples from the beds. The kelp thriving along this part of the urban waterfront has been here only a few years, Blomberg explains. “There was no kelp here whatsoever.”
As part of a small pilot project, he relocated kelp plants from healthy beds elsewhere in the bay, fishing them up still attached to rocks and dropping them into place in their new homes. Surprisingly, the transplants did well and seeded a subsequent generation.
The Port’s kelp work is part of a bigger “blue carbon” initiative exploring whether diverse marine ecosystems can help counteract the impacts of climate change. Kelp, in particular, is getting a lot of attention as a possible mechanism to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it up in the deep ocean.
One startup in Maine has attracted millions of dollars in corporate and venture capital investments with its plan to farm kelp on buoys offshore. The hope is that the rapidly growing seaweed will absorb gigatons of CO2 through photosynthesis, then, as the weight of the algae overwhelms the biodegradable floats, sink to the ocean floor, where that carbon will remain locked up.
Scientists and private companies also are testing kelp’s ability to buffer ocean acidification.
But it’s not clear whether either approach will prove scientifically or economically feasible. For Washington, most experts agree the top priorities should be protecting the kelp that remains and developing scalable restoration methods.
“The cheapest thing we can do is conserve,” says Dana Oster, marine program manager for the Northwest Straits Commission, which helped develop the conservation and recovery plan.
A framework already exists in state regulations that protect critical saltwater habitats. The rules have been applied extensively to eel grass, another important marine plant, but rarely have been extended to kelp beds, says Oster. Part of the reason is there’s no established “recipe” for kelp protection, but the hope is that ongoing research will soon provide one.
The status of kelp beds was recently added to the list of key indicators — like orca populations, shellfish harvests and salmon spawning areas — used to gauge the ecosystem’s health and ensure that restoration efforts are making a difference.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know, and that makes it hard to influence policy,” Oster says. “But there’s also a clear need. We can’t wait. We have to act now.”
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