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The Oceans Need Kelp: How Humans Are Connected to and Rely on the Kelp Forests Yet Are

Destroying Them

Patrick Wright

Glen Allen High School



I can only compare these great aquatic forests… with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical
regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many
species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp. Amidst
the leaves of this plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food
or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, the otters,
seals, and porpoise, would soon perish also; and lastly, the [humans]… would… decrease
in numbers and perhaps cease to exist – Charles Darwin, 1909
Kelp forests are one of the more important ocean ecosystems. They are one of the Earth’s

most productive habitats with great biodiversity of plant and animal species. Growing as much as

50 centimeters per day and up to 65 meters tall, they are the largest marine photosynthetic organism

or plant like organism in our oceans – as kelp is in the protista family not the plantae family

(Rocchio, 2014). Many mature terrestrial forests attain a canopy height of 10-30 meters within 20-

30 years compared to kelp which grows 1-15 meters in 1-3 years (Steneck, et al, 2002). Craig

Johnson, a researcher at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies,

states that “Our giant kelp forests are now a tiny fraction of their former glory.” Anthropogenic

climate change, overfishing, and pollution have resulted in a mass degradation and shrinkage of

the ocean’s kelp forests, even leading them to be listed as an ‘endangered ecological community’

(Bland, 2017). The current degradation leads to questions about the relationship humans and

society have with kelp. What are the environmental benefits of kelp? Does kelp benefit humans?

Do the benefits outweigh the cost of protecting them? Ultimately, should humans protect the kelp

forests, and if so, how?

Biology and Ecology:

Kelp forests are “phyletically diverse, structurally complex, and highly productive”

building blocks for cold-water rocky marine coastlines (Steneck, et al, 2002). Kelp is divided into

three morphological groups: canopy, stripitate, and prostrate. Morphology refers to a group of

species that have similar requirements and similar niches within an ecosystem. For kelp,

morphological groups are defined by their canopy height (Dayton, 1985). The ‘canopy’ group is

the largest, and will be the most focused on as it contains the giant kelp, or macrocystis pyrifera.

Macrocystis pyrifera grows 45 meters long and primarily “dominate[s] kelp forests along the west

coasts of North and South America,” being the most significant kelp for the Americas (Steneck, et

al, 2002). Most ‘stripitate’ kelps are less than five meters long and ‘prostrate’ kelps are

“diminutive” coving the ocean floor (Dayton, 1985).

The unique anatomy of kelp has led to its success and survival, functioning as a substratum

(foundation) for the ecosystem. Kelp is held to the seafloor with a small cone-shape mass of root-

like structures called haptera, commonly called a holdfast. Unlike in plants, the holdfasts of kelp

do not carry nutrients or water to the plant, they only serve as an anchor for the kelp. The holdfasts

create a perfect habitat for organism such as sea urchins, brittle stars, bristle worms, sea stars, and

sea sponges, as well as protection for smaller fish (Dooley). The holdfast supports a tough but

flexible stipe, a stalk-like structure, and leaf-like blades that float due to air-filled pockets called

pneumatocysts. The blades create dense floating canopies on the water surface, yet these massive

plant-like organisms rely on holdfasts barely 60 centimeters wide to keep them rooted and alive

(Rocchio, 2014). The anatomy of the kelp yields itself to great habitats for a variety of organisms.

Octopi camouflage themselves among the kelp. Many species of crab climb up and down the stripe

in search of food. Sea otters wrap themselves up in the surface canopy to prevent themselves from

drifting away in the strong ocean currents when sleeping or eating sea urchins. A wide range of

fish can also be found among kelp environments including: more than 100 species of rockfish,

leopard shark, horned shark garibaldi, kelp bass, cabezon, sheephead, and senorita fish. Along with

the fish are many species of marine mammals that rely on kelp for food and protection including:

sea lions, seals, and grey whales. Kelp also serves as a refuge for an abundance of bird species.

Kelp forests are a “natural buffet” for birds such as crows, warblers, starlings, and black phoebes

which feed on flies, maggots, and small crustaceans that are abundant in kelp forests. Gulls, terns,

egrets, great blue herons, and cormorants dine on the many fish and invertebrates living in the kelp

(NOAA, 2017).

Kelp forests maintain a very structural and fixed wood web. Algae production, such as

macrocystis pyrifera, is fundamental in energy flow throughout the system of diverse trophic levels

and interactions (Graham, 2004). Since m. pyrifera is the main producer for the ocean ecosystem,

all other species in the ecosystem rely on it for survival. The most crucial primary consumer of m.

pyrifera is the sea urchin, along with other primary consumers that are smaller, herbivorous fishes

and invertebrates. Secondary consumers within the kelp forest ecosystem include sea stars,

abalones, larger crabs, larger fishes and octopi, and most importantly, the sea otter as it is a

keystone species (Tegner, 2000; Graham, 2004). Sea urchins are such a crucial aspect of kelp

forests because they dictate the amount of kelp within a forest. As the largest primary consumer

of m. pyrifera, there is a direct correlation between the number of sea urchins and the amount of

kelp in an ecosystem. The more sea urchins, the less kelp. Graham remarks that “population

explosions of kelp forest primary consumers (particularly sea urchins) [have] result[ed] in kelp

deforestation” (2004). The result of increased populations of sea urchins destroying kelp forest

ecosystems are now being referred to as “sea urchin barrens.” Sea urchin barrens occur when there

are more sea urchins than kelp leading to the kelp not being able to grow as fast and reproduce

because it is being eaten by the sea urchins. Various reasons, primarily human caused, have led to

the replacement of kelp forests with sea urchin barrens.

Impact of Climate Change:


Because of the greenhouse gas effect, heat-trapping carbon dioxide, emitted from the

burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, has raised the Earth’s global temperature.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, throughout the 20th century to present,

“[ocean] temperature rose at an average rate of 0.13°F” (.07°C) per decade, as seen in Figure 1


Figure 1: Climate change indicator: sea surface temperature. This indicator describes global

trends in sea surface temperature.

Sea surface temperature has been consistently higher the past three decades than at any

other time. Research suggest that the “annual number of days that some part of the ocean is

experiencing a heat wave has increased 54 percent” from 1925 to 2016 with these heat waves

lasting an average of 17 percent longer (Gramling, 2018). A heat wave is defined as at least five

consecutive days of unusually high temperatures for a particular ocean region or season, mostly

influenced and catalyzed by “[anthropogenic] climate change causing surface ocean waters to

warm” rather than large atmosphere-ocean climate patterns such as El Nino. Further research and

climate models predict more frequent marine heat waves in the upcoming decades (Gramling,

2018). A warmer atmosphere means a warmer ocean as the ocean is the Earth’s primary stability

regulating force.

There is a common theme among ocean ecosystems: small changes can precipitate large

scale changes. Warmer ocean temperatures have many negative effects on our oceans. Ocean

acidification is a serious problem as the ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide in

the atmosphere (Fujita, 2013). Increased carbon absorption damages ocean species that use

calcium carbonate to form their skeletons and shells such as corals and oysters. Coral bleaching

has become a major issue for the world’s coral reefs resulting in the starvation, shrinkage, and

death of corals that support thousands of species within the coral reefs. Warmer and more acidic

water is causing corals to expel their mutual algae (zooxanthellae) living within the coral causing

the coral to lose its color and turn white, hence the coral bleaching. This makes it much more

difficult for coral to get food. Warmer temperature has interfered with mish migration causing fish

species to move towards the poles which disrupts ocean fisheries. Rising sea levels, caused by

ocean swelling of excess atmospheric heat, has led to drowning wetlands which hinders the plant

species from growing above the water to photosynthesis. In the case of kelp forests, climate change

is creating sea urchin barrens. Bland, through his research in climate patterns and changes,

associated the increased population of sea urchins with a “steady increase in ocean temperatures”

(2017). Warmer temperatures cause the kelp to wilt because the water has become “intolerably

warm” and “nutrient-poor.” This allows for warm-water sea urchins to move in, voraciously

grazing and mowing down the kelp vegetation, leading to a sea urchin barren “largely devoid of

life” (Bland, 2017). This aids in the destruction of other ocean ecosystems. An example of this can

be seen off the east coast of Tasmania where “95 percent of the kelp has disappeared since the

1940s,” once one of the most known dense kelp forests in the ocean (Rocchio, 2014). There is a

rise in nutrient-poor “ocean deserts” as well as habitat forming species and processes for

ecosystems such as coral reef and mangrove forests (Hoegh-Guldber, 2010). “Climate change has

brought a trifecta of kelp scourges: warmer waters with fewer nutrients; new invasive species; and

severe storms” making conditions for kelp growth less ideal, decreases kelp productivity, and

weakens kelp forest biodiversity (Rocchio, 2014). Anthropogenic climate change is the primary

cause of the decline and collapse of kelp forests across the global oceans.

Impact of Overfish/Overharvesting:

Ecosystems are finely balanced; if a certain species disappears, the entire ecosystem can

drastically change. Another explanation for the increase in sea urchins is

overfishing/overharvesting. An experiment done on Australian kelp forest to explore the effect of

human activity on kelp forests resulted in the conclusion that “removing large predatory lobsters

[reduces] the resilience of kelp beds against the climate-driven threat of the sea urchin” which has

fostered the adverse shift to sea urchin barrens from lush, dense kelp forests. This helps to support

the idea that human stressors, in this case fishing, exacerbates the effect of climate change and

limits the “adaptive capacity” of this ocean ecosystem (Ling, 2009). When the lobsters are

harvested by humans for food, they are removed from the food web. Removing any organism from

any food web creates a chain reaction due to the fact that all species in an ecosystem are dependent

on each other for survival. Removing the lobsters means that there are less predators for the sea

urchins. This allows for an increased population of sea urchins meaning that more kelp will be

consumed. It is not only lobsters, however, that are being overfished that lead to the sea urchin

barrens replacing dense kelp forests. Large predatory fish such as tuna, salmon, perch, and pike

also play a role in kelp ecosystems. These fish are desired in the seafood industry so they tend to

be over-harvested in many parts of the world. In a study of kelp forests in the north west Atlantic,

results showed that when “populations of the top level fish predators had been reduced by severe

overfishing in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, predation pressure on lower trophic levels decreased and this

probably lead to the increase in urchins and other benthic invertebrates within the kelp

beds.” During this time, kelp forests had reached an all-time low in their distribution and

abundance in this area due to “intensive urchin grazing” (Kelly, 2005). Overfishing of apex

predators, such as lobsters, rockfish and sheephead, in kelp forest ecosystems triggers herbivore

populations to increase, leading to widespread kelp deforestation. Such kelp deforestation has the

most profound and lasting impacts on “species-depauperate systems” (Steneck, et al, 2002).

Depauperate systems are environments with low biodiversity because there are not enough

nutrients to support high populations and variety of species. Sea urchin barrens, being depauperate

systems, do not have the benefits that systems with high biodiversity have, such as resilience and

stability, so it is hard for sea urchin barrens to return back to the prior kelp forest.

The transition from kelp forest to urchin-dominated ‘‘barren grounds’’ of crustose coralline
algae has dramatic impacts on the food and habitat available to the rest of the community.
Barren grounds have much lower primary productivity than kelp forests and may persist
for months to years; reforestation begins when urchin populations are affected by
alternative foods, strong surge, or disease (Tegner, 2000).

Nutrient Pollution:

The introduction of excess nutrients and other harmful substances affect all ocean

ecosystems, specifically kelp forest ecosystems and nutrient pollution. Excess nitrogen and

phosphorus, caused by runoff from fertilizers on land, leads to excessive growth of algae, also

known as eutrophication. Once the mass growth of algae occurs, it begins to decay which creates

a hypoxic environment known as a dead zone. These dead zones are devastating to ocean

environments as there is little to no oxygen needed to support marine life. In an experiment done

by the University of Adelaide looking at the connection between the rise of carbon dioxide from

climate change and the effect of excess nutrients, marine biologists found that “removing the

nutrients from the water… improve[ed] the environment for kelp growth” (University of Adelaide,

2013). Increased nutrient pollution puts additional stress on the already struggling ecosystem.

While kelp thrives in nutrient-rich water, being algae, too much (unnatural) nutrients, however,

allows for other less beneficial algae to grow. This creates competition with the kelp and can

suffocate the ecosystem. Competition for kelp growth aids in the rise of sea urchins as sea urchins

can eat both the kelp and the competitive algae.

Increased nutrients from agriculture, wastewater discharge, and storm water on urban
coasts are already causing damage to kelp populations in our coastal waters but our
research shows that as CO2 rises the impacts will be much worse and we could lose these
really important marine habitats… As we face a future of climate change and higher CO2
levels, there is considerable evidence that our marine ecosystems are going to be severely
impacted. We won't be able to manage those global factors at the local level, but what we
can manage is local nutrient pollution into our seas from urban areas. This work has shown
that by reducing the nutrients we should be able to substantially reduce the impact of rising
CO2. The bottom line is that we need to reduce the nutrient pollution now. (University of
Adelaide, 2013).
A case study that shows the devastating effect of excess nutrient pollution into a kelp forest

ecosystem can be seen in the 1992 San Diego sewage spill. 1.9 x 108 liters of liquid waste was

discharged into the local Point Loma kelp forest. This created toxic levels of surface ammonium

concentrations at ocean surface levels and reduced the ability of sunlight to penetrate into the

water. Scientists studied the impact of this event the following months and years to measure the

effect of excess nutrients in kelp ecosystems. Conclusions showed “significant reductions in the

density and growth of [kelp]” as well as damage to kelp because of the low light and nutrient

conditions (Tegner, et al., 1995). Shortly after the spill was repaired and the area was cleaned up,

conditions improved supporting the notion that human caused excess nutrient pollution has major

effects on ocean ecosystems and aids in creating sea urchin barrens from kelp forests.

Benefits of Kelp:

The replacement of kelp forests with sea urchin barrens raises many questions regarding

the harmful effects on they have on the environment and what benefits are lost from the kelp forests

that sea urchin barrens do not provide. The principal benefit of the kelp forests is their ability to

sequester carbon (Kelly, 2005). Carbon sequestration is when carbon dioxide is removed from the

atmosphere and stored in plants. This is very beneficial for the biosphere as it helps to combat the

increased concentration of carbon dioxide that is the primary catalyst of climate change. Kelp

forests have been given the name “blue carbon” ecosystems as they can “take up to 20 times more

carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than land-based forests” (Bedolfe, 2017). Seaweeds could

sequester around 173 million metric tons of carbon each year, about as much as the annual

emissions of the state of New York (Bedolfe, 2017). Kelp forests do not only sequester carbon;

they provide many other ecological benefits. Kelp serves as an ecosystem foundation: feeding and

sheltering diverse ocean species. They are a vital habitat and safe haven for schools of fish,

invertebrates, marine mammals, and birds. Kelp forests also reduce coastal erosion and serve as a

buffer against strong storm-born waves. Since climate change will likely heighten the severity of

weather events like storms, the protection kelp forests provide coastal communities will be a major

benefit (Anderson, 2016). These benefits add one more dimension to the need to protect kelps and

seaweed ecosystems. When kelp is lost, not only is habitat that is a significant for many species

lost, but also “an important carbon sink” is lost (Bedolfe, 2017).

Marine Protected Areas Solution:

Marine protected areas are sections of any body of water that are closed to

fishing/harvesting, mineral and hydrocarbon extraction (fossil fuel drilling), and possible other

activities, depending on the protected site. They encompass a variety of conservation and

management methods established and managed by the government. Marine protected areas include

marine sanctuaries, estuarine research reserves, ocean parks, and marine wildlife refuges. The goal

of a marine protected area is simple: conserve, manage, and protect (NOAA, 2017).

Former President Obama took the lead in creating marine protected areas for the world by

increasing the amount of strongly protected ocean areas from five percent of the ocean under US

jurisdiction to twenty-three percent, including creating the largest strongly protected marine area

on the planet – land or sea – Papahānamokuākea Marine National Monument, which is twice the

size of Texas. The global trend in marine protected areas is looking positive. For decades, only 0.1

percent of the oceans were strongly protected areas. Currently, 1.6 percent of the ocean is strongly

protected. While this may seem like such a small percentage, there is a global target of 10 percent

ocean protection by 2020 (Grorud-Colvert & Lubchenco, 2017). The benefits of a strongly

protected marine area are clear. There is an increase in marine biomass, fish and invertebrates tend

to grow larger and produce more young, ecosystems are more resistance to change and are resilient,

and they increase nearby fisheries producing more food for humans.


The kelp forest is one of the most important ocean ecosystems, especially for colder waters

and shorelines, and have been degraded by human actions. With this in mind, it is more important

than ever that humans take action to protect the kelp forests, ensuring its longevity, to prevent sea

urchin barrens in order to maintain the lush, dense, and diverse kelp forests that provide many

benefits to humans and the survival of life on earth.

It is up to the world’s governments to recognize the benefits of the oceans its many

ecosystems, like the kelp forests, and provide protection for them. Marine protected areas have

shown benefits to the environment and to human life. It is up to the government to establish and

enforce marine protected areas. It is up to the government to establish law and regulations and

enforce them, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Protection,

Research, and Sanctuaries Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, all of which

have shown to be beneficial to American environments. As citizens, it is our job to stand up for

the oceans and protect them by pushing for marine protected areas and environmental

laws/regulations. As former president Richard Nixon, creator of the Environmental Protection

Agency, said, “the Congress, the Administration, and the public all share a profound commitment

to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable

by and hospitable to man.”


Research List

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atmosphere than we expected. Oceana. Retrieved from


Bland, A. (2017, November 20). As Oceans Warm, the World's Kelp Forest Begin to

Disappear. Yale Environment 360. Retrieved from


Dooley, W. Ecology of seaweed and its environmental significance. Cheadle Center for

Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration. Retrieved from


EPA. (2016). Climate change indicators: sea surface temperature. Retrieved from


Fujita, R. (2013). Five ways clime change is affecting our oceans. Environmental Defense Fund.

Retrieved from


Gramling, C. (2018, April 10). Ocean heat waves are becoming more common and lasting

longer. Science News. Retrieved from


Graham, M. (2004). Effects of local deforestation on the diversity and structure of southern

California giant kelp forest food webs. Ecosystems, 7(4), 341-357. DOI: 10.1007/s10021-


Grorud-Colvert, K. & Lubchenco, J. (2017, January 5). Do ocean preserves actually work?

Smithsonian. Retrieved from


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ecosystems. Science, 328(5985), 1523-28. DOI:10.1126/science.1189930

Kelly, E. (ed.) (2005) The role of kelp in the marine environment. Irish Wildlife Manuals

National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local

Government. Retrieved from


Ling, S., Johnson, C., & Ridgway, K. (2009, November 3) Overfishing Reduces Resilience of

Kelp Beds to Climate-Driven Catastrophic Phase Shift. Proceedings of the National

Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from

NOAA. (2017, October 10) What is a marine protected area? National Ocean Service. Retrieved


NOAA. (2017). What lives in a kelp forest. National Ocean Service. Retrieved from

Rocchio, L. (2014, December 19). Finding Floating Forests: It Takes an Online Village to Map

Massive Kelp. NASA Earth Observatory. Retrieved from

Steneck, R., Graham, M., Bourque, B., Corbett, D., Erlandson, J., Estes, J., & Tegner, M. (2002).

Kelp forest ecosystems: Biodiversity, stability, resilience and future. Environmental

Conservation, 29(4), 436-459. doi:10.1017/S0376892902000322

Tegner, M. & Dayton, P. (2000, June 1) Ecosystem effects of fishing in kelp forest

communities, ICES Journal of Marine Science, 57(3), 579–589. doi:


Tegner, M., et al. (1995). Effects of a large sewage spill on a kelp forest community: catastrophe

or disturbance? Marine Environmental Research, 40(2), 181-224. doi: 0141-1136/95


University of Adelaide. (2013, July 17). Stop marine pollution to protect kelp forests.

Adelaide. Retrieved from