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Commercial divers join forces with conservation groups to restore the North Coast’s kelp ecosystem

8/7/20 -- On Tuesday morning, Reef Check, an international nonprofit dedicated to conservation of tropical coral reefs and temperate kelp forests, launched their kelp forest restoration project. The ultimate goal of this pilot project is to clear all the purple urchins out of Noyo Harbor to see if that will help the kelp forest, which has largely disappeared over the past ten years, recover.  

Bull kelp, a type of thick, brown algae, started disappearing in 2008. In 2013, when the Northeast Pacific Ocean experienced a record-breaking marine heat wave and ocean temperatures increased by 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) for almost a full calendar year, the rate of kelp die off drastically increased.

At the same time, a massive influx of purple urchins entered the area and started eating all the kelp, changing the ecosystem from a lush kelp forest to an unproductive urchin barren -- an area void of anything except spiny, purple urchins. When the bull kelp went, so did With the North Coast’s abalone fishery, once worth $44 million before it’s collapse in 2018 and red urchin fishery, worth $3 million in its prime. Fin fisheries and shorebirds that rely on a healthy marine ecosystem were also adversely impacted. 

Scientists believe that removing the purple urchins might give the bull kelp the space to reestablish, which could play a part in ultimately bringing back North Coast’s many fisheries, which are pivotal to the region's economy and culture. 

That’s why Reef Check is working with divers to remove purple urchin and assess the underwater ecosystem — counting algae, invertebrates, fish, and other species in the bull kelp ecosystem. They hope that without so many purple urchins, the bull kelp will have the space to flourish and the once productive North Coast reefs can bounce back. 


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