Tuesday, November 21 , 2017, 11:16 pm | Fair 56º

 
 
 
 

Captain’s Log: Where Did All the Giant Kelp Go?

Warm seawater, large swells, too little sunlight can knock kelp for a loop

A lush kelp forest is ideal habitat for fish like this calico bass and blue rockfish.
A lush kelp forest is ideal habitat for fish like this calico bass and blue rockfish.   (Capt. David Bacon)

When people notice our kelp beds are diminishing, they naturally and wisely want to ask local experts about it. For street-level answers coming from voices of experience and knowledge, most folks will ask a captain of a boat that specializes in fishing kelp beds or diving kelp beds.

We are the ones who spend the most time near the kelp forests and have decades of experience in watching them expend and contract as conditions change.

Giant kelp (macrocystis pyrifera, for those who need a scientific name) is the most amazing of all plants in my opinion. Under the right conditions, this plant can grow up to two feet a day.

When I’m out there on my charterboat WaveWalker, and the fishing is slow, I kid people and tell them we’re not really fishing today. We just came out to watch the kelp grow.

What are the right conditions for growth? Cool seawater, gentle swells and lots of sunlight. The plants respond rapidly to that set of factors and kelp beds expand amazingly fast.

First I notice widespread growth coming up off of hard seafloor. I may fish the same spot a week later and notice on my fishfinder screen that the plants are noticeably taller but have not yet reached the surface.

Then a couple of weeks later, I’ll find the kelp reaching the surface, and within another couple of weeks there is a widespread and healthy canopy creating a magical kingdom among its tall stocks and kelp fronds. Sea life gathers up and takes residence in the ideal habitat.

That is the story of expansion when everything is right for the plant. What is the opposite story that diminishes the lush kelp forests we love so much? It is pretty much the exact opposite … warm seawater, large swells and not enough sunlight.

Giant kelp, for all of its rapid growth capacity is really susceptible to unfriendly conditions and can be ripped off of its holdfasts in one large, powerful Pacific storm packing large swells the surfers call killer sets.

Many times I’ve marveled at how much kelp is lost in one major storm event. Warm water weakens the resiliency of the plant and makes it all that much more susceptible to storm swells or heavy south swells from hurricanes down south.

As El Niño and La Niña spells evolve, kelp is impacted in a grand way. We always get our warm-water cycles and our cold-water cycles, and so the lush kelp beds will contract and expand in response.

What we have to worry about and study are the effects of ocean acidification, oxygen depletion and other potentially dangerous (to flora and fauna) oceanic conditions.

— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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