Educational Series: Incredible Kelp Forests With Countless Marine Animals are Facing Destruction

By Nick Engelfried
Submerged beneath the waves, just a short ways from the shore along many parts of North America’s Pacific Coast, forests 150 feet or more in height sway gently back and forth with the tides. As impressive in their way as the Douglas-fir and redwood trees growing on land, underwater kelp forests shelter an astonishing variety of animals and play a vital role in marine ecosystems. With threats like climate change now jeopardizing their survival, it is essential that we learn to better appreciate and understand this important habitat type.

There are about 30 species of kelp–and though they resemble plants, these marine organisms are actually a type of gigantic brown algae. The larger species easily rival tall trees in height, but because they never grow above the water few people ever get to see mature kelp in their natural habitat. From the long, hollow stems sprout leaf-like structures known as blades, while the base of the kelp is anchored to the ocean’s rocky bottom by a root-like “holdfast.” Yet, despite their superficial resemblance to plants, many things distinguish kelp from land trees. For one thing, kelp lack wood or any other kind of hard support structure to hold up their weight. Instead, they rely on spherical “bladders” full of gas and attached beneath the blades to keep them floating upright in the ocean’s currents.

Like forests on land, kelp forests support an extraordinary number of animal species. Snails, crabs, and other invertebrates cling to the blades and stalks, feeding on the kelp itself or hunting smaller organisms. Among the most voracious herbivores to prey on kelp are sea urchins, which in a healthy kelp ecosystem are kept in check by sea stars, sea otters, and other predators. Small fish, including juvenile sharks, take shelter among the stalks of kelp, while seals, sea lions, and dolphins pass through hunting for prey. Other iconic creatures found in the forests include stingrays, octopuses, and even gray whales.

Not only are kelp forests among the most important strongholds of biodiversity in the oceans–they also store vast amounts of carbon, making them one of Earth’s best defenses against climate change. Every spring and summer, when kelp growth is at its peak, the giant algae pull carbon from the atmosphere–some of which becomes permanently sequestered when detached kelp floats out to sea and is eventually buried beneath sediment on the ocean floor. Intact kelp forests and other algae-rich coastal ecosystems can sequester an estimated 20 times more carbon per acre than forests on land.

Despite the importance of kelp forests, the need to conserve them has received relatively little public attention compared to that devoted to terrestrial forests and other marine habitats like coral reefs. This is a tragedy, as kelp forests and the animals who depend on them desperately need our help.

In some ways kelp is highly resilient. Unlike coral reefs, which take centuries to form, kelp grows incredibly quickly–as fast as 18 inches per day in some cases! Kelp forests, which are found mainly along the coast from Baja California to Alaska, are also adapted to thrive in a harsher, colder environment than tropical reefs. Winter storms leave the forests battered and torn, so the ecosystem has to repair itself each spring. Kelp forest inhabitants have adapted to these continually changing conditions. For example, the cute crustaceans known as kelp crabs switch their diets in the winter, when they begin feeding on small invertebrates instead of the kelp and other algae that sustained them during the milder parts of the year.

Despite having the natural ability to bounce back quickly after a disturbance, kelp forests now face threats they are not equipped to survive. Climate change, overfishing, and historic hunting of marine mammals have upset marine ecosystems, removing predators who would otherwise keep herbivores like sea urchins under control. In the 19th century, fur traders devastated populations of sea otters, one of the urchin’s main predators. Although killing wild sea otters is now prohibited by federal law, the species has yet to fully recover from hunting and other, more recent threats like habitat loss and pollution.

An even more existential threat to kelp forests has been the near-disappearance of sea stars from marine habitats along the West Coast. Although they may look harmless, sea stars are one of the most effective predators in the oceans, with a diet that includes clams, mussels, oysters–and sea urchins. Beginning in 2013, a deadly disease known as sea star wasting syndrome began decimating the populations of these ecologically important invertebrates. The causes of wasting syndrome are still not fully understood, but warming ocean waters are thought to be one factor that may have made sea stars susceptible to the disease. More recently, unprecedented summer heat waves up and down the West Coast have put additional stress on these and other marine invertebrates. During recent heat waves, sea stars that had escaped wasting syndrome were literally cooked alive in waters too warm for them to survive.

The spread of wasting syndrome and other threats to sea stars has led to a sea urchin population explosion. Without predators to keep them in check, urchins have proliferated up and down the West Coast, in some areas forming massive “herds” that move through kelp forests and over the sea floor like swarms of locusts, devouring everything in their path. Kelp in many areas have not been able to survive the onslaught. Along parts of the Northern California coast, kelp has declined by 95 percent since the early days of the sea star wasting epidemic in 2014.

Fortunately, the natural resilience of kelp forests suggests they would be able to recover if relieved of environmental pressures like the explosion in sea urchin numbers. The solution is to dramatically curb society’s use of fossil fuels, while helping natural predators like sea otters repopulate their range and reach their former abundance again. The establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) in kelp habitat can also help save these marine forests by keeping other types of disturbance to a minimum as they recover from the stresses caused by a warming climate.

Like the more famous land forests of which they are so reminiscent, kelp forests need our help if they are to survive well into the 21st century. We can all do our part by respecting marine environments, getting involved in efforts to combat climate change, and informing others about the importance of these vital ecosystems. With the right conservation efforts, towering forests of majestic kelp and the vibrant communities of marine life they support can once again thrive up and down the West Coast.

Photo credit: Moonjazz

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Approximately how many species of kelp are there?
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Where are you most likely to find a kelp forest?
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True or false: After a major natural disturbance, kelp forests usually require at least several decades to recover
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What is the name of the structure that keeps a kelp attached to the ocean floor?

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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