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Economic Tide Turns Against Kelp Foresters

Southern California’s kelp forests, essential to the health of the marine ecosystem in California, have taken a beating in recent decades. Natural cycles of growth and decline have been skewed toward decline by El Nino events, algal blooms, polluted water, and populations of kelp-eating urchins unchecked by predators, among other things.

Nevertheless, a small number of scientists have invested personal time, money and effort to gain the scientific know how to revive healthy local kelp beds. Several beds off Laguna Beach dotted with transplants and nearing maturity now face a different threat, as the grant money they survive on is nearly spent and their stewards run out of options.

After 23 years and several attempts, Mike Curtis has succeeded in nurturing two local kelp beds. Curtis was mentored by Wheeler North, a CalTech scientist who pioneered transplanting techniques, bolstering kelp beds off Palos Verdes in the 1960s, and is widely seen as the master of the art.

During the El Nino years of 1982 to 1984, warm, nutrient-poor water destroyed kelp beds from Newport Harbor to San Clemente. The state Fish and Game Department turned to Curtis’ employer, MBC Applied Environmental Sciences, where he works as a senior scientist, to re-establish the kelp beds. Curtis and North transplanted kelp at 17 small sites, which grew well, until the El Nino years of 1991 to 1994 brought even warmer water. The small kelp patches died off, providing the first of several tough lessons: if a kelp bed reaches a critical mass of roughly five acres, according to Curtis, it can survive difficult conditions; smaller ones will simply die.

Several kelp beds in the area are nearing the survival zone. Nancy Caruso, a scientist with The Aquarium of the Pacific who has worked on kelp beds at Crystal Cove and Heisler Park, said, “Neither location has hit critical mass. One more year and Heisler may get there. We are due for an El Nino and that is scary.”

Caruso, who started under the Orange County Coastkeepers project at Crystal Cove, and jumped from non-profit to non-profit to continue as money was exhausted, finally won funding from Aquarium of the Pacific. But now her future and her legacy seem uncertain.

“My funding runs out in September. Everything I’ve applied for has been declined. The Aquarium is laying me off. I’m thinking of starting my own non-profit but not involving kelp. Kelp is really hard to get funded because no one is doing marine restoration besides kelp people, so there is no basis for money, no factory of donors.”

Gordon Layman faces similar prospects. In1996, he started planting kelp at Little Corona outside Newport Harbor as a fun project for his students in the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program. After initial efforts, he won a position on the Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s board and a grant for his project. Like Curtis he studied with North and Chuck Mitchell, MBC’s founder. He established what is now one of the largest kelp beds, which has reached critical mass and now serves as a donor site for other kelp bed transplants.

Curtis attributes this partly to good timing: the La Nina years of 1998-1999 and 2000-2001 provided cold, nutrient rich water. But through several rounds of grants, Layman was able to develop a new transplant technique that also dramatically improved his success.

Curtis meanwhile had won approval to begin a kelp project in Laguna Beach, the cost of mitigation for an aerospace company that polluted in San Diego Bay. Launched in 2002, it was intended to be a five-year project, with two sites south of Main Beach. The transplants started growing but massive algal blooms in 2005-2006 blocked the sunlight kelp needs to do photosynthesis. Curtis lost 90 percent of the kelp he had painstakingly transplanted. He renewed the effort and the kelp gradually came back, totaling 14.5 acres today.

Divers report seeing giant black sea bass in the kelp beds that haven’t been seen in decades. “We are definitely excited about it…I get calls from people all over the country saying, ‘I’m in California on vacation and I want to dive kelp. Where should I go?” said Andrew Ross, of local dive shop Laguna Sea Sports.

While there have been warmer than normal water temperatures this spring, no one is ringing the El Nino alarm bell yet. Curtis is confident his two sites have reached adequate size, citing their survival of the 2005-06 algal bloom as proof. But he wonders if the beds can sustain themselves.

Layman’s Little Corona site has also reached critical mass. After his success there and in Long Beach, Layman used the remaining grant to plant a site off Pelican Point, in Crystal Cove. His method was effective for the first time in open water, and the kelp bed took off. But now the grant is almost spent and Layman’s 20-foot, 1968 Glastron boat needs repair.

“We have three more dives worth of grant money and then we are going to be picking up our floats,” Layman said. “Trying to make a living at this is ridiculous. I love the ocean. That’s how we got into it. We wanted to put something back into it that everyone has taken away.”

Curtis shares that sentiment. “This kelp bed has always been one of my big goals. I’ve spent much of my own time working on it.”

It turns out succeeding with kelp beds requires navigating on dry land as well as the ocean.

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