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Huffman proposes first major investment in kelp forest restoration: $50 million annually for four years

Efforts to restore the iconic kelp forest off the North Coast would receive a $50 million a year boost under a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, the first major investment in reviving an ecosystem that supports diverse and abundant marine life.

The legislation introduced by the San Rafael Democrat last week would establish a new grant program under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It would be funded by $50 million a year over at least the next four years to support projects aimed at conserving, restoring and managing kelp forest ecosystems.

The Keeping Ecosystems Living and Productive, or KELP, Act would provide a significant boost to work in recent years to address the collapse of the bull kelp forest off the coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

“Healthy kelp forests play an important role in marine ecosystems, sustainable fisheries, and coastal communities,” Huffman said in a news release. “But the extensive kelp loss on the North Coast has had serious impacts on our ocean and everyone who depends on it. Local communities are working hard to restore these vital ecosystems, and the KELP Act will direct the necessary federal resources to support these important recovery efforts.”

The kelp forests are a key barometer for the wider health of the world’s oceans, and without some recovery, their future as biodiverse stores for marine life and people hangs in the balance.

Huffman also recently pushed to include $500,000 in an appropriations bill for activities included in the 2019 Greater Farallones Kelp Recovery Program.

Francesca Koe, who sits on the Greater Farallones Natoinal Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and co-chaired the working group that produced the Kelp Recovery Program, said she’s grateful to see the issue “getting the kind of attention it deserved from the jump.”

Scientists first sounded alarm about the state of the North Coast’s bull kelp in 2016, citing a “perfect storm” of major environmental stressors that, in short order, transformed what had been a rich, productive ecosystem into an urchin barren. The ocean floor is now dominated by millions of small purple urchins that have grazed it bare and starved the remaining population of red abalone that once drew thousands of recreational divers to the region each year.

Researchers said that a harmful algal bloom in 2011 that killed off large numbers of marine invertebrates, including abalone, began a period of ecological disruption in the ocean. In 2013, the outbreak of sea star wasting disease decimated sea star populations, some of which are just now beginning to recover. The sunflower sea star, an important urchin predator, has not.

A prolonged period of anomalously warm ocean water related to the so-called Warm Blob, which spread along the West Coast in 2014, along with an El Niño the next year, made the kelp even more vulnerable as it was subjected to ocean churn and the voracious appetite of multiplying urchins.

By 2014, the bull kelp forest canopy had declined by 93% compared to 2008. More recent research based on satellite data indicates more than 95% of the canopy disappeared between 1985 and 2019.

The collapse has closed recreational red abalone fishing since 2018, a loss estimated at $44 million to the local economy. It also wiped out most of the red urchins that had supported a more than $3 million commercial fishery on the North Coast, and it decimated an important natural carbon banking mechanism that helped buffer coastal shores from wave action.

Koe and others said they have been frustrated that federal support has not been forthcoming, and the state has only provided minimal funding and only very recently.

Academics, nonprofit groups and citizen divers have collaborated, meanwhile, on surveys and urchin culling efforts, and have recently moved into bull kelp farming and experiments with captive breeding of sunflower sea stars.

“I wish that all these eyeballs had been on it from the beginning, and I think it took the outpouring of the passion for all the volunteers, free divers, spear divers, tribes, coming together to do urchin removals,” Koe said. “We were doing as much as we could and we became the narrative.”

Laura Rogers-Bennett, a veteran biologist and marine scientist who holds dual appointments at the UC Davis-Bodega Marine Lab and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said she was “very excited’ about the legislation.

She added that she has been concerned about public inattention and lack of investment in the marine environment, specifically, in the kelp forest.

She is participating in an international effort to put a monetary value on the ecological and economic benefits provided by kelp forest to aid understanding of this critical underwater habitat.

“I think when you look at all the services that ecosystems provide us, we can see that this dollar amount is a good first step in the right direction for what we’re going to need for kelp forests, particularly on the West Coast here,” Rogers Bennett said.

Sheila Semans, executive director of the Noyo Center for Marine Science said the legislation was critical.

“Fort Bragg, California, is Ground Zero in this kelp crisis, and we are running out of time to reverse the loss of our kelp forest ecosystems,” she said in a statement.

“Urchin barrens now blanket the entire Mendocino coastline...The importance of this funding cannot be overstated for rural fishing communities like ours.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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