New Eyes on Kelp initiative boosts underwater monitoring of kelp beds

Puget Sound’s kelp forest are in decline due to pollution and threats from climate change.

The Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) and Paul G. Allen Family Foundation recently announced the launch of a comprehensive kelp forest monitoring initiative, Eyes on Kelp, as part of PSRF’s larger ongoing kelp program to assist with regularly viewing underwater kelp activities.

Puget Sound’s kelp forests are in decline due to pollution and threats from climate change, according to PSRF.

Kelp, which is known as a powerhouse in the marine ecosystem, mitigates ocean acidification, transforms sunlight and carbon dioxide into food for fish, crab, and shellfish, and acts as a lifeline to critically endangered species such as salmon and orcas.

“Kelp forests are cultural keystone habitats for Tribal communities, who continue to depend on kelp for traditional foods, livelihoods, and customs,” said Betsy Peabody, executive director of PSRF. “This program will put eyes, both human and electronic, in the water to monitor kelp so we can determine the best actions to protect these vital underwater forests.”

The Samish Indian Nation estimates a 36% decline in kelp forests in the San Juan Islands, occurring in less than 10 years. Kelp beds across Puget Sound are showing signs of stress by decreasing in size or disappearing entirely in some areas.

In south Puget Sound, 80% of bull kelp were lost in the past 50 years, and bull kelp beds once found around Bainbridge Island have entirely disappeared, with the last bed caving around 2015, according to PSRF.

The Eyes on Kelp initiative assists with expanding underwater kelp monitoring across the Puget Sound region. Underwater monitoring will occur at 14 index sites, spanning a range of environmental conditions and human use impacts.

Partners of the initiative include Reef Check Foundation, who will organize and train the volunteer diver network, the Bay Foundation and Marauder Robotics, who will develop, activate, and field test new robotic monitoring technology.

Several of the objectives of site surveying and monitoring includes developing a program to coordinate data sharing, archiving, and survey planning across the sites. Further objectives include training a network of local volunteer divers in species identification and survey protocols to collect data on the status and trends of kelp beds, performing underwater monitoring of the kelp index sites, and deploying sensors at all sites to measure environmental parameters.

The Bay Foundation and Marauder Robotics are collaborating to develop and test new kelp forest monitoring and restoration technology in Santa Monica Bay, California. The technology will be further developed, tested, and refined in Puget Sound.

Technological objectives of the Eyes on Kelp initiative consist of identifying top needs of resource managers in the state to facilitate the best management of kelp habitats and designing and testing a platform that automates tasks performed by divers, to include the data collection from the seafloor to the surface. Another objective is determining how the automated data collection platform can address other needs of managers, researchers, and restoration practitioners.

“I just want to be able to contribute to marine science in a meaningful way,” said Zack Dixon, Reef Check volunteer diver. “Of all the pressing environmental issues that are happening right now, ocean biodiversity and conservation is one of the most important and so deserves the most attention as soon as possible.”

PSRF will continue to work with grant partners with hopes of engaging and building partnerships across multiple sectors, including with Tribal Nations, resource agencies, restaurants, environmental groups, fisheries, and local communities.

To cover the 14 index sights, PSRF are working with Jameston S’Klallam Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Makah Tribe, Marine GEO, Northwest Straits Commission, NOAA Fisheries, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Port of Seattle, Samish Indian Nation, Seattle Aquarium, Squaxin Island Tribe, Suquamish Tribe, University of Oregon, University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, United States Geological Survey, the Washington State Legislature, Washington Department of Fish and Widlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and Washington Sea Grant.

What you can do to assist kelp, depending on the situation you find yourself in. Courtesy of PSRF.

What you can do to assist kelp, depending on the situation you find yourself in. Courtesy of PSRF.