Help the Kelp

Bull Kelp Recovery Program

What Can You Do To Help

  • Donate Today: $500 pays for 5 hours of dive time and clears ~1,500 sq ft of seafloor of purple urchins
  • Become a citizen scientist. Join our dockside sampling team (16 and over)
  • Report sunflower sea stars if you see them! They are a good urchin predator
  • Become informed and spread the word
  • Help create a market for purple urchin
Bull kelp. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Bull kelp forests are the foundation – or structure – of our nearshore coastal ecosystem. The floating canopy of this brown algae gives shelter to young fish and the kelp itself provides food for valuable species, such as red abalone and red sea urchin.

Today, our kelp forests are in serious trouble. Though annually variable, in the past five years, California’s kelp forests have decreased by 93% of normal. Higher sea surface temperatures in recent years have limited kelp growth, and sea star wasting disease has removed a key predator of purple sea urchins, a veracious eater of kelp. Though our waters have cooled this past year, the explosion of the purple urchin population—60 times higher than normal—and has prevented the kelp forests from recovering from these multiple blows.

The effects of the kelp forest loss reach from the ocean to the shore. The red abalone fishery, severely impacted by a lack of food, has been closed this year.  Fewer fish has meant that shore birds do not have enough food for their chicks. This year, 90% of the local cormorant and 80% of the black oystercatcher nestlings failed to survive. Fewer young fish also means fewer larger fish for marine mammals, such as harbor seals and sea lions.

Click photo to see commercial urchin divers removing purple urchin as part of Help the Kelp.

In the nearshore environments, urchin now out compete red abalone and other herbivores for kelp, creating what’s known as an urchin barren. This is what we are seeing along most of our coastline today.

 What’s Being Done to Address this Crisis?

A highly collaborative team has formed on the north coast to begin clearing purple urchin from an area, creating essentially a kelp “refuge” area.  The goals of this program are:

  • Support the natural recovery of bull kelp along the Mendocino and Sonoma coasts by creating kelp refuge areas.  As an annual species, bull kelp needs to release spores to produce next year’s forests. By significantly reducing density of purple urchin in refuge areas, kelp will have a chance to recruit, grow to full size and reproduce.
  • Support the development of a commercial market for purple urchin. Red urchin are the commercial urchin that provide uni to your favorite sushi restaurant.  Purple urchin are much smaller, and they too are starving so there isn’t a food market for this species.  In fact, purple urchin have outcompeted the red urchin and there is currently no real commercial urchin fishery.  Our program hopes to create a products for the purple urchin, such as a calcium source for fertilizer. Let us know if you have any good ideas on how to use these urchin.
  • Monitor the dynamics between kelp and urchin. We certainly need to know more about the ongoing interaction between these species.  Excessive urchin grazing has created >50% bare rock in highest urchin density areas.  How fast will kelp recover once urchin are removed. How quickly will urchin reinvade a refuge area?  How long can kelp spores remain viable in urchin barrens? Higher ocean temperatures and more acidic waters are changing the way these two species interact with each other.
  • Engage community partners, students and citizen scientists. We live in a coastal environment reliant on our local ocean resources, whether that be for our job, our dinner, our vacation, or our enjoyment. To turn this crisis around, we will need to support of everyone, whether as a dockside sampler of purple urchin coming in, as a donor of our effort, or as a partner that can fill an important role.
  • Create research priorities for the larger ecosystem issues. Scientists will be working hard to identify the research needed to facilitate broad scale recovery and increase the resilience of bull kelp forest ecosystems in the face of increasing climatic and ecological stressors.


2018 Kelp Refuge Sites: Caspar and Noyo Bays:

By looking at where we have had persistent kelp beds together with where we had kelp in 2017, we selected two sites that will allow us to expand the growth capacity of an existing kelp patch. Working next to previously existing kelp patches increases the likelihood of local availability of spores to support kelp growth in the cleared refuge areas.

2018 will be our project’s pilot year, and we plan to remove urchin for at least 3 years.

Normal kelp coverage in 2008 compared to kelp coverage from 2016 at each of our two sites.

Crushing v. Culling

We are working with local commercial urchin divers to clear out purple urchin from our refuge sites. Clearing techniques include urchin removal (e.g. hand-picking, airlift) so that the urchins may be quantified at the dock and utilized by the processors, or they may be crushed on site.  Urchin crushing will only be considered once a project partner has determine that there is very low gonad present in the urchins to avoid artificially spawning them.  Our team is appealing to Fish and Game Commission to create “free urchin days” (remove the daily bag limit) allowing recreational divers and local citizen scientists to contribute to the effort by smashing or removing urchin in the nearshore through a coordinated effort.

Bull Kelp Monitoring

Subtidal transect surveys will be conducted by CDFW and ReefCheck within the refuge areas to compare with surveys within the existing kelp patch. These surveys will be conducted within August and September to allow comparisons with previous year. Young bull kelp surveys will be conducted in spring (April – June) to assess the early growth of bull kelp inside and outside of the existing kelp patch and the refuge area. The Noyo Center for Marine Science will deploy mini-ROV and 360-degree camera with local volunteers and interns to document young bull kelp growth and reinvasion of purple urchin.  Adult bull kelp aerial surveys will be conducted in October to determine the spatial extent of surface kelp in the project zones.

Our Partners include:

We Need YOU!

Redwood Elementary’s First Grade combined project in this year’s Marine Art and Science Fair depicting a healthy kelp forest and an urchin barren.

How can you make a difference?

  • DONATE to this important effort. Your contribution supports:
    • Diver time underwater
    • Scientific monitoring of refuge sites
    • Public outreach and education
    • Classroom education
  • Get involved.  Volunteer with the Noyo Center or any of the project partners
  • Come up with a great idea about how to use purple urchin so we can create a commercial market for this species.  This will put divers back to work and help our local economy.
  • Spread the word about this important project.  Loosing these kelp forests would be catastrophic to our region.
  • Support climate change legislation and reform.  The ocean absorb over 90% of the fossil fuels released into the atmosphere and the increase in temperature and acidity is creating these impacts all over the world. Clean energy today.