Kelp Forests

Kelp Forest - photo credit: C. McConnell

Kelp forests are some of the most unique and ecologically diverse ecosystems that are found in the nearshore coastal waters. They grow predominantly on the Pacific Coast, from Alaska and Canada to the waters of Baja California. Kelp forests need rocky coastlines where their holdfasts can take anchor and cool (50 – 64 °f) nutrient rich water to grow.

Kelp forests are tiered like a terrestrial rainforest with a canopy and several understory  layers below, the kelp forests of the eastern Pacific coast are dominated by two canopy-forming, brown macroalgae species, giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) and bull kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana). When conditions are ideal giant kelp’s average growth (in spring) is 27 cm/day (~10 inches/day), yet it may grow up to 61 cm/day (2 ft/day). The average growth of bull kelp is 10 cm/day (~4 inches/day).

Kelp forests maintain their vertical structure in the water column using small gas bladders called pneumatocysts. It is the 3D environment created by the plants suspension in the water column that makes kelp forests such an attractive habitat, both as a refuge from ocean predators and as a source of food.

Kelp Forest, photo credit: K. Lafferty, USGS
Photo credit: K. Lafferty, USGS

Kelp forests are homes to a huge variety of endangered and commercially important species such as abalone, rockfish and sea otter. There are an array of habitats on the kelp itself that may support thousands of invertebrate individuals, including polychaetes, amphipods, decapods, and ophiuroids. Many species (California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) and harbor seal (Phoca vitulina)) that don’t live in the kelp, will still feed there or use kelp forests as areas of refuge from storms or predators because the kelp helps to weaken currents and waves. (Read more about Ecological Interactions.)

Kelp forest Monitoring

PISCO’s kelp forest monitoring efforts attempts to discover and describe the structure and function of the kelp forest such as quantification of the density and abundance of the macroalgae, invertebrates and fishes that constitute kelp forest communities. This approach allows us to quantify both the patterns of abundance of targeted species as well as characterize changes in the communities they reside in. This information provides insight into the causes and consequences of changes in species abundance resulting from human or non-human factors and as such forms the basis of "ecosystem-based management" of kelp forest communities.


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