Restoring Kelp in the Face of Climate Change

Researchers at UC Davis’ Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute, in collaboration with Humboldt State University and UC Santa Cruz, will research how ecological restoration of kelp forests might incorporate future impacts of climate change.

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Purple sea urchins actively grazing on kelp off the coast of Mendocino County, California. (Photo by Chris Teague)

Researchers at UC Davis’ Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute (CMSI), in collaboration with Humboldt State University and UC Santa Cruz, recently received a joint $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to understand how ecological restoration of kelp forests might incorporate future climate change impacts.

The funding will support research on the restoration of kelp forests in northern and central California, where extreme temperatures and a Sea Star Wasting disease outbreak in 2013-16 led to declines in kelp, exceeding 90% in some places (Mendocino & Sonoma counties) but not others (Humboldt County).

Kelp form underwater forests that support an array of species, fisheries, and associated livelihoods in California coastal communities, which have also experienced significant impacts, including a federal fishery disaster declaration in 2019.

“Climate change means that restoration management has a moving target, where a major challenge is how restoration might help promote adaptation to future climate change”, says Marissa Baskett, an ecologist from UC Davis who is leading the multi-institution team, “but what ‘adaptive’ means can be in the eye of the beholder: it could mean buffering to maintain what’s there, or it could mean transforming into something new that’s more likely to persist under climate extremes.”

Zoology Professor Sean Craig and Environmental Science & Management Professor Laurie Richmond join the team of faculty researchers—who are experts in anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, ecology, and oceanography—plus students and community partners and agencies from Mendicino, Sonoma, and Monterey counties.

The study will examine factors behind kelp forest adaptation, and weigh the costs and benefits of what to do next, which could be everything from restoring kelp beds to keeping them in their altered state. These insights will inform current and future restoration efforts of California’s kelp forests and the associated coastal communities whose livelihoods depend on marine resources.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our team of researchers and student SCUBA divers to learn more about why some kelp beds are persisting and/or expanding, while others are not doing well,” says Craig. “Our dive team has been monitoring areas inside and outside Marine Protected Areas and will now study whether environmental factors such as temperature and salinity are correlated with the changes we see in kelp beds.”

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HSU graduate students Carolyn Belak and Monique Demalteris conduct fish surveys to monitor the health of kelp forest ecosystems in a Marine Protected Area at the Saunders Reef State Marine Conservation Area in Point Arena. (Photo by Franklin Moitoza)

Richmond and student researchers will be a key part of the social science team that is exploring coastal communities that depend on and are connected to these kelp ecosystems.

Many groups such as commercial and recreational fishermen and divers, Tribes, tourism businesses, environmental NGOs, and government officials have been affected by declining kelp ecosystems and are working to restore them. Richmond’s research will explore how different groups have experienced and been affected by kelp decline, how they have adapted, and how they would like to see restoration efforts proceed in the future.

“This project provides a unique opportunity for social scientists to collaborate with ecological scientists to understand a complex ecosystem facing threats from climate change and to work in partnership with affected communities to explore potential paths forward,” says Richmond.

Related link: HSU expanding and diversifying seaweed research farm