Mendocino Kelp Forest Cut Down by Urchin
Over the last five years, our kelp forest ecosystems along Sonoma and Mendocino’s coastline have diminished greatly as a result of the invasive purple sea urchin. Their voracious appetite has cut down much of our northern coast’s kelp forests.
Red Abalone as a Specie Hangs in the Balance
Once we have a handle on the purple urchin situation we hope that the kelp and the abalone return along with a strong coastal ecosystem overall.
View an Urchin Barren in Mendocino
The video below documents the growth of kelp that can be seen off of Portuguese Beach, Mendocino as of August 2019. The goal of marine researchers has been looking for ways to restore these “old growth” forests to health, and to reduce the impacts on native marine life by the urchin and other invasive species.
Seeking Data on Kelp
Scientists and local volunteers are racing to find out why and to see if there’s a way to save the Sonoma and Mendocino kelp forest, the main food source for the Red Abalone.
Reef Check California
The non-profit organization Reef Check California, which focuses on reef conservation, hosted two different remotely-operated underwater drone exploration dives along the Mendocino coast. The goal of their live-streamed dives was to help the public to learn more about Mendocino’s kelp forests and how they can help with conservation efforts.
Underwater Drones Explore the Ocean’s Bottom
The two dives were organized with assistance from the Noyo Center, California State Parks, California Marine Protected Areas Collaborative, Open Explorer, a National Geographic platform, and Sofar Ocean Technologies.
Through the use of remotely-operated underwater drones, they explored two different local ecosystems. The first one was of the last remaining old-growth kelp forests in the area. The other, an “urchin” barren where once a healthy ecosystem flourished and now all that is left are bare rocks and starving purple sea urchins.
Kelp Observation By Reef Check
Since the program’s inception, Reef Check trained and deployed over 2000 volunteer citizen scientist scuba divers to conduct over 1000 surveys counting fish, invertebrates, and kelp along California’s coastline. This research expanded northward to Oregon and Washington. Their resulting long-term monitoring data informs the public, scientists, resource managers, and policymakers in their decisions regarding the continued protection and management of our coastal waters. Local divers and others actively engaged in the scientific process also, including divers in Sea Ranch and north into Mendocino County.
In March of 2022 they completed our Sonoma Coast surveys that included observations of our own Sea Ranch coastal area.
Local Divers and Advocates Join the Effort
Local divers known as the Waterman’s Alliance joined by other local recreational divers dive from the shores of Sonoma and Mendocino culled urchins from the various coves and bays. Their goal was to lower the number of urchin in a particular area in an effort to minimize its destruction to the ecosystem, most specifically, the food source of the red abalone. Through their efforts, the Waterman’s Alliance convinced the Department of Fish and Wildlife to change restrictions on the daily take of the purple urchin from 35 individual urchins a day to 45 gallons a day.
Removal of Purple Urchin One Option
Some divers recommend killing on the spot any purple urchin they see while diving in the Sonoma/Mendocino waters by smashing. The Waterman’s Alliance, on the other hand, advises against it.
Some divers recommend the smashing of the urchins, especially in Southern California. Not only does the smashing solve the kelp problem it also serves the fish that live near the urchin barrens. Hammer time brings with it a buffet of freshly prepared uni. The fish flit near the divers even before the smashing begins, waiting to feast on edible urchin parts. In Southern California upward of 70 urchins per square meter dominates in these barrens, eating young kelp before it has a chance to establish itself. In the past 100 years, 75 percent of the kelp forests off Palos Verdes have disappeared.
…Or Not to Smash?
In their statement the Alliance explains smashing urchin when they are reproductively viable, runs the risk of artificially spawning them. The presence and size of the gonads—or reproductive organs—is a key indicator we use. Off our coast, major spawning occurs from December through March but can happen at other times of the year. Research suggests that temperature can have significant effects on the timing of reproductive events in sea urchins, for example.
While it is unclear the ultimate impact of either of these efforts, these recreational divers continue to dive in hopes they may make at least a small dent in the overpopulation of the urchin.
Active Advocacy for Abalone and Kelp Pays, but Still More Needed
Local divers and other agencies have met over the last two years to petition the State of California Department of Fish and Wildlife to explore ways to save the Red Abalone Harvest. Their efforts included discussions at a variety of meetings held by the Department and by The California Coastal Commission and the California Ocean Protection Council among others. Besides the local divers, these meetings were also attended by scientists, environmental agencies and other related state agencies.
Ocean Protection Council
The California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) was created in 2004 to help protect, conserve, and maintain healthy coastal and ocean ecosystems and the economies they support. The OPC works with diverse interests and provides the leadership needed to meet the accelerating and complex challenges of our time as set forth in the California Ocean Protection Act.
OPC Interest in the Mendocino Kelp Forest and Urchin Problem
Most recently, OPC meetings on the May 23, and August 14, 2019, solicited input from Council members and the public on issues that OPC should prioritize over the next five years. The goal was to inform the development of OPC’s strategic plan. As a result of advocacy efforts there, the Ocean Protection Council now appears interested to prioritize the issues of saving the red abalone and the kelp forests above others and to resolve the urchin problem.
Proposition 68 Grants by OPC
The Ocean Protection Council (OPC) adopted the Proposition 68 Grant Guidelines (Grant Guidelines) at their May 23, 2019 meeting. At the meeting, OPC decided to postpone releasing solicitations for projects under Prop 68 until the OPC Draft Strategic Plan is final. Please join the OPC email listserv to receive future solicitation announcements.
Advocacy Accomplishments to Date
Ocean Protection Council’s Marine Ecosystems Program Manager, Michael Esgro summed up the accomplishments made by the divers and local groups:
Compelling Public Comments
Through compelling and emotional public comment by individual divers and local groups at their May 23 council meeting Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Natural Resources became acutely aware of of the severity of the kelp crisis.
Funding Restrictions Lifted for Kelp
The Council asked OPC staff to pause on funding any new projects until such time as OPC has a new strategic plan in place. However, as a direct result of their testimony and the efforts of OPC staff, Secretary Crowfoot lifted this restriction specifically for kelp projects and allowed OPC to provide a very small amount of initial emergency funding to the North Coast.
In consultation with OPC leadership, as well as their scientific/agency/stakeholder partners, they decided that aerial monitoring (as in the Reef Check video posted above) and volunteer-led restoration efforts were the top 2 priorities to support with this limited amount of funding.
Aerial Monitoring Initiated
Aerial monitoring is a key need according to OPC. Determining where kelp is persisting will help us understand where to focus our restoration efforts. We can’t restore 100 miles of coastline, but we have a better chance at defending select locations to preserve the kelp spore bank until ocean conditions improve.
The Reef Check Project
The Reef Check project will be a chance for volunteers to channel their energy and passion into a project that will a) actively help restore kelp at select locations and b) provide the state with valuable data on the effectiveness of urchin culling as a restoration technique.
Provide Data on the Effectiveness of Smash and Restoration
Not only will the Reef Check project provide a legal way for divers to smash urchins, but it will also provide data on the effectiveness of that restoration technique compared to bag and drag. If we want the Fish and Game Commission to reconsider the “wanton waste” regulation then we need to show them this data.
New OPC Strategic Plan
The protection/restoration of kelp forest ecosystems will be included in OPC’s new strategic plan.
More Funding will be Available for Kelp Projects
When our strategic plan is finalized within the next several months, much more funding will be available for kelp projects, especially through Prop 68. OPC has $35 million to spend on “marine ecosystems” through Chapter 9 of Prop 68. See grant guidelines here. They are open to exploring funding for urchin boats through Prop 68.
Secretary of California Environmental Protection Agency Interested
After public comments, Secretary of California Environmental Protection Agency, Jared Blumenfeld approached and engaged the advocates. Blumenfeld a very smart and passionate guy also has a podcast with a very large audience. He now wants to make an episode about the kelp issue. He has also expressed interest in getting in the water to see the urchin barrens for himself. Most importantly, he asked the advocates directly “how do we do something big to fix this?”
Learn More About the Agencies
Reef Check California
Reef Check California is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s reefs. Our mission is to empower people to save our reefs and oceans, stimulating action through a combination of education, training, research and targeted collaborations. In addition to providing a platform for divers to survey their local reefs, our training offers the public a rare window into underwater ecology, building a sense of direct personal investment in the preservation of the world’s oceans.
Reef Check pursues four principal goals: 1) Educate the public and governments about the value of underwater reef ecosystems, and to bridge the information gap between scientists and citizens 2) Stimulate local action to protect remaining pristine reefs and rehabilitate damaged reefs worldwide 3) Create a global network of volunteer teams, trained and led by scientists, that regularly monitor and report on reef health using a standardized and scientifically rigorous sampling method 4) Design and implement ecologically sound and economically sustainable conservation projects through collaborations with community groups, governments, universities, and businesses.
Sofar Ocean Technologies
A new venture from ocean tech companies, Spoondrift and OpenROV, merged to form Sofar. Their efforts accelerate a future of ocean exploration with better tools to understand and connect us with our planet. The mission of the company is to create pervasive sensor networks to understand and monitor ocean environments and provide critical data for ocean enthusiasts, industry, and conservation.
California State Parks
Our state parks system provides for the health, inspiration, and education of the people of California. They preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity. Through efforts to protect its most valued natural and cultural resources, you’ll enjoy opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation.
The Noyo Center’s mission is to advance ocean conservation. They accomplish this through education, exploration and experience.
Follow the Noyo Center’s OpenExplorer Post
California Marine Protected Areas Collaborative
The mission of the MPA Collaborative Network is to empower coastal communities to advance MPA management and encourage ocean stewardship.
Ocean Protection Council
The Ocean Protection Council or OPC, ensures that California maintains healthy, resilient, and productive ocean and coastal ecosystems. Their efforts are essential for the benefit of current and future generations. The OPC is committed to basing its decisions and actions on the best available science. They promote the use of science among all entities involved in the management of ocean resources.
How Can You Help or Join In?
We hope this article raises your awareness about the dire condition of our coastal ecosystem. Contact any of the agencies listed above to learn more.