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By Jim Graves
I sat down with Julianne Steers, a marine biologist and director of husbandry at the Ocean Institute, to speak about the kelp forest off our coast, and how it’s experienced a slight rejuvenation over the years. Steers also discussed a unique sea slug that resides off our coast and more.
Jim Graves: What have you observed about the health of our local kelp forests?
Julianna Steers: First off, remember that 800 species make their home in our kelp forests, so kelp is an important component of our local ecosystem. In 2014, we saw a significant decrease of our kelp forests, due to the warming of our ocean related to El Niño. The kelp could not maintain itself due to the warmer temperatures. There is always a natural die-off of kelp, but at this time it was
not replacing itself.
From 2014 to 2015, the kelp forests were replaced by Sargassum, a type of algae that did not provide a source of food or a hiding place for our local marine life. Some of our local marine life left the area in search of a more suitable habitat. I would do fish surveys and count fewer fish.
In 2016, there was a dip in the temperature of our ocean, and the kelp started to come back. We’re returning to a normal cycle, and marine life is returning.
Graves: What kinds of kelp do we have off the coast of Dana Point and what kinds of animals live there?
Steers: We have giant kelp, or macrocystis pyrifera, which can grow up to 150 feet long. It needs a hard surface to anchor itself on, such as a rock or artificial object, like the Wheeler North Reef off San Clemente. Off our Dana Point beaches, you’ll find giant kelp growing 10 or 20 yards off the shore and going out several hundred yards.
There are all kinds of fish in the kelp which are camouflaged to look like kelp. It is their defense mechanism. There are also kelp crabs that climb up and down the canopy. There are some varieties of snails, such as Norris’ top snail. It moves up and down the kelp throughout the day. There are also brittle stars. Many of these creatures use the kelp as their nurseries, where they have their young.
Graves: How important is kelp to sea life, and what can humans do to avoid harming kelp?
Steers: It would be hard for many of these species to survive without kelp.
Humans can help most by being good stewards to our environment, keeping our watersheds healthy and avoiding behaviors which pollute it. If you have a power boat, avoid driving through the forest and damaging it with a boat propeller.
I would encourage people to enjoy the kelp forests. It’s beautiful to snorkel or dive through and enjoy. For those who don’t want to swim, the Ocean Institute has exhibits that introduce visitors to our kelp forests and aquaria, which display some of the animals that live off our coastline. Also, many of the Institute’s summer programs for children discuss the important role kelp plays in our ecosystem.
And, don’t be surprised if, in the summer, clumps of kelp wash up on the shoreline. It is a normal part of our ecosystem.
Julianne Steers is a marine biologist and director of husbandry at the Ocean Institute. She has an extensive background in ecology and has been researching, diving and exploring the local ecosystem for the past several decades. She recently spoke with me about the health of our underwater kelp forests off Orange County’s coastline.