A race to stop a kelp crisis, with impacts far beyond local waters

It’s an emergency unfolding out of sight, beneath the waves of Puget Sound. Underwater forests that support shellfish, fish, crabs and everything up the food chain are disappearing, and scientists don’t have clear answers why.

Kelp forests are an integral part of our local ecosystem. In addition to supporting the food chain, kelp can remove carbon from the water while producing oxygen, a relief for dangerous ocean acidification. 

"Kelp forests are sort of like the engines at the base of the system, that is turning carbon into food that works its way through the food web," explains Betsy Peabody, the executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF).

Peabody’s nonprofit is teaming up with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to track the plight of kelp forests around the Sound. Scientists know that climate change and pollution play a role, but there are unanswered questions that could help researchers understand how to reverse the trend.

They’ve handpicked 14 sites to track moving forward in an effort to fill those critical data gaps. Each site involves a variety of interested parties: tribal governments, ports, nonprofits and more.

The ultimate goal is to understand why some locations are holding on, while others are disappearing.

It comes at an integral time, too. Scientists aren’t just sounding alarms about the direction kelp forests—they’ve been openly sounding the alarm for years about endangered species of salmon and orca further up the food chain, which starts in these disappearing kelp forests.

"We need monitoring platforms, so we start to see the things that are invisible to us," said Peabody. "We need to see all those invisible pieces that are making salmon and orca possible – and also, making it possible for us to live here surrounded by resources that support us."

On a cool Saturday morning Deb Halley, a volunteer diver, met up with FOX 13 News at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines. She, along with roughly a dozen other divers, were undergoing training with Reef Check Foundation. They will be the eyes on the ground, or in this case, underwater.

Halley has been a diver for more than three years. She fell in love with underwater photography, but as temperature change and pollutants became more obvious to her, she said she wanted to find a way to give back to the water she loves.

"Personally, for me, there was a turning point where I wanted to do something more and just give sea life a voice," said Halley. "You just don’t want it to diminish."

Her instructor, Reef Check’s Dan Abbott, said it’s a dire situation. He compared it to visiting a national park after a forest fire has ravaged the land, or trees have been clear-cut overnight. 

"I’ve experienced it firsthand," said Abbott. "It can be heartbreaking. There [are] sites that I’ve been diving since I was a kid that were inspiring to me, and set me on the path to be a marine biologist, and they’re just gone now."

Abbott said there are sites in Puget Sound that are gone, while others are in danger of disappearing quickly. The work his team of volunteers do will track that.

The idea of kelp disappearing is not a new one. Roughly, 80% of bull kelp has disappeared from south Puget Sound in the last 50 years. 

Peabody noted that tribal communities have witnessed similar destruction. The Samish Indian Nation tracked kelp off the coast of the San Juan Islands and recorded that 36% of bull kelp canopies disappeared in the course of a decade.

It may seem like those on the frontline feel despair. Between endangered species of salmon, the Southern Resident orcas and a disappearing canopy of bull kelp, where do people turn to for hope? Peabody said, it’s the willingness of partners, and the areas that are holding out despite pollution and climate change stressors.

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"For instance, along the Seattle waterfront near Elliot Bay Marina moving along the Olympic Sculpture Park, there’s this treasure of kelp that is supporting a healthy ecosystem," said Peabody. "Right there, along an urban waterfront. So, it’s a mixed picture, and we need to understand more about it. We need to figure out: ‘Why are kelp forests hanging on in some places, why are they disappearing in other places, and what can we do about it?’"

Moving forward, divers working with Reef Check Foundation will hope to uncover more information, but PSRF is going one step further, working with Marauder Robotics to develop robotic monitoring platforms that will add additional eyes underwater.