North Coast kelp beds ‘like a desert’ this year

Barren underwater landscape near Mendocino has been stripped of vegetation by colonies of purple urchins, abalone fishermen say. It looks ‘like a fire went through.’|

Abalone diver Richard Hayman already had been observing troubling shifts in underwater conditions off the North Coast when he found himself gazing around the ocean floor in Arena Cove with a new level of alarm.

“It’s like a desert out there,” he recalled, describing a barren underwater landscape stripped of vegetation by colonies of purple urchins that vastly outnumbered the mollusks he sought. It looked, he said, “like a fire went through.”

During 25 years of diving, Hayman had come to know the area offshore the Mendocino County town of Point Arena as a source of succulent abalones, abundant and plump with meat.

In June, he came ashore with his limit of three, despite a substantial reduction in the number of shellfish he saw. But they were so withered that, once removed from their shells, the creatures weighed less than a third of what they normally would.

“They’re starving to death,” the Calistoga man said. “It’s obvious.”

Hayman, 52, was among a dozen veteran divers who recently shared their observations at the midway point to the 2016 red abalone season, which resumes Aug. 1 after a month-long break and runs through November.

What they revealed was near consensus that all is not as usual out there, off the edge of the land, beneath the waves.

Scientists had predicted as much just before the season’s April 1 start, describing an unprecedented collapse of the North Coast’s iconic bull kelp forest and the resulting gloomy outlook for the abalone fishery and the overall ecosystem.

Divers reporting in over the past few weeks - people like Napa diver Andy Treweek, 55 - witnessed as much in some areas, where they discovered a few undersized abalone living on near-barren ocean floor.

“Usually by this time of the year, you’re swimming out over mats of kelp bed,” he said, “to the point where if you’re shore diving, it’s tough to get in some places because the kelp is so thick.”

But they also witnessed a mix of conditions and cause for hope in areas of rebounding kelp and other plant life, spots where the abalone were healthy and full, in cooler water conditions that could only be good for the system.

Many found that the ocean status varied by location, sometimes even within the distance of a few yards.

Todd Stagnaro, of Santa Cruz, said his usual dive spots around Moat Creek and the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, as well as Shelter Cove in southern Humboldt County, appeared lush and healthy, with a great diversity of wildlife.

“I don’t know where people get the idea the kelp is in trouble,” said Stagnaro, 36.

The answer comes, in part, from scientists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who routinely monitor offshore conditions as part of their fisheries management mission.

Over the past two years, they have been alarmed by what some have come to call a “perfect storm” of large-scale environmental impacts that included a harmful algal bloom off the Sonoma Coast in 2011 and related release of toxins that killed off large numbers of red abalone and other invertebrates.

In 2013, the spread of sea star wasting disease depleted numerous species of starfish, including two that play pivotal roles in maintaining ecosystem balance.

The elimination of starfish, which are key urchin predators, allowed for the unchecked proliferation of small, voracious purple urchins that swarmed the ocean floor in search of food.

The result was large-scale destruction of kelp and other plant life, according to marine wildlife expert Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with state Fish and Wildlife.

The bull kelp, which thrive in the cold upwellings typical off the North Coast, suffered further due to two years of unusually warm water conditions off the West Coast - what meteorologists and other scientist came to call the “Warm Blob” - and El Niño, which arrived last year and reinforced high temperatures.

By spring 2-16, Catton and her team estimated that the golf-ball sized urchins, which compete with abalone for food, had reached densities estimated at more than 60 times those observed in the past.

Meanwhile, aerial surveys assembled from imaging done last fall off the coastline between San Francisco and the Oregon border showed a 93 percent reduction in the surface area of the kelp forests compared with past peak years, she said.

But while most of the underwater and aerial surveys for the current year are still to come, scheduled to coincide with peak kelp growth season later this summer, Catton said preliminary dives, abalone inspections and diver reports suggest some patchy recovery of the kelp and areas where abalone seem to be doing better than others, but only in small areas.

Off Van Damme State Park, for instance, Catton said she could look side to side, in one direction seeing only nude plant spikes sticking out of the ocean floor, and in the other, waving fronds of plant life.

“It is not as bad as I feared it would be,” Catton said, “but I had some pretty low expectations of it this year.”

Josh Russo, 44, of Fairfield, similarly said he had experienced dives on which he found thin, hungry abalone and then moved over 50 or 100 feet to see “a totally different story.”

Russo, a licensed dive guide and advocate, said the kelp is less dense than it has been recently but is being compared to a decade of boom years in which it was especially thick.

Russo serves on the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and the Sonoma County Abalone Network, and is president of the Waterman’s Alliance, a spearfishing group.

He also argued that while the abalones may currently have less to eat than in recent years, he believes the population can handle some thinning and still prove a viable fishery.

Rob Winn, 46, of Colusa, agreed.

“There are years when the kelp is so thick the entire reef system is covered, such as 2012-13,” he said. “Then there are years when there is less kelp, like there has been for the last two years.”

But there are signs that the kelp is recovering and balance being restored, he said. “Although things seem to be a little out of balance at the moment, there is an abundance of life on the reef, the kelp is returning as usual ... and I am optimistic about the health of the reef.”

Moraga diver Warren Dean, 57, said it seemed to him as if the kelp was looking better last fall than it had recently, but rough ocean conditions for much of this year have held up its recovery, contributing to kelp and abalone loss, uprooting plans and scouring out coves, even polishing the shells of some abalone.

Gualala resident Jack Likins, 70, said there are so many factors affecting the ocean that it’s hard to say how soon conditions might improve.

Likins has been collecting research data for The Nature Conservancy as part of an Abalone Working Group. He said he believes rough ocean conditions that have shifted great volumes of sand and scoured out coves have contributed to kelp and abalone loss as part of a natural cycle that at some point will reverse. When that will happen is unclear.

“It seems to vary in terms of how dramatic it is, from site to site,” Likins said. “But overall, I’d say, generally the conditions are not good.

“There’s something going on,” he added. “Whether or not there’s something we can do about it, I don’t think there is.”

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is working on an Internet reporting portal to better track diver observations, but in the meantime welcomes input, as well as underwater photos and videos, Catton said. Shared images and information should, if possible, include the date, location and depth at which they were acquired.

Those interested in submitting information can contact Catton at or (707) 875-2072.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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