Monitoring Kelp, the Puget Sound's Most Precious Resource

May 04 2022
Photo credit Florian Graner, courtesy of Puget Sound Restoration Fund.

You may think the icon of the Puget Sound is the orca, harbor seal, or salmon. While not very charismatic, and actually pretty slimy, a case can be made that the star of the Puget Sound is kelp.

Kelp forests have historically stretched like a highway across the Northwest, and they are essential to the region's biodiversity, climate, and cultural heritage. While most people notice kelp once it has detached and washed ashore on our beaches, huge, swaying kelp forests are meant to stretch like an undersea jungle along the shores of our region, and every part of the kelp influences the ecosystems, habitats, and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.

Kelp Are Disappearing

Washington state is home to one of the most biodiverse range of kelp species in the world. But kelp beds in Washington state are showing significant signs of stress. Many beds are decreasing in size or disappearing entirely in some areas. In the Puget Sound, 80 percent of bull kelp has been lost in the last 50 years. Bull kelp beds once found around Bainbridge Island in the central Puget Sound disappeared entirely in 2017.

Even as kelp is disappearing, its importance remains, and magnifies throughout the Puget Sound's food web. The presence, or disappearance, of kelp beds impacts everything from shore birds, shellfish, rockfish, salmon, and orcas. Kelp forests are like rainforests, transforming sunlight and carbon dioxide into food, serving as refuge and banquet tables for some of our most iconic species, and are a cultural cornerstone for the Indigenous communities of our region.

Culturally, kelp had many uses and was a central part of many of the coastal tribes of the region. Kelp was and still is used as a cooking tool, a fishing tool, for creating nets and ropes, and in customs and rituals. The extensive kelp highways themselves enabled ancestors of Indigenous nations to travel and settle in this region. Perhaps more than any other icon of our local environment, kelp is truly what makes the Puget Sound unique.

Kelp forests play a fundamental role in fueling marine and even terrestrial ecosystems..

Making the Kelp Connection

Kelp is a part of us; it is in us. From the food we eat as part of our rich Pacific Northwest cuisine, to the shores and waters we occupy and navigate, these iconic species floating just below the surface are a vital connection to our Puget Sound foodways. Learn more about Puget Sound's kelp forests in their Storymap.

As kelp matures and grows, kelp blades release dissolved organic matter that is consumed by bacteria and plankton, which in turn feed our favorite filter feeders -oysters, clams and mussels. Kelp detritus is a primary food source for a large community of marine invertebrates including shrimp, copepods, amphipods, and isopods, many of which are important prey for pacific herring, other forage fish, juvenile salmonid, and young-of-year rockfish. Many of these smaller kelp connoisseurs are food sources for highly-coveted recreational and commercial fish species, such as salmon and lingcod. Birds and marine mammals look to these food-filled kelp forests for their next meal, or sometimes even for a nap. Even Puget Sound’s iconic Southern Resident killer whales know to hunt for prey in and along floating kelp beds.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has donated $1.7 million in multi-year support for kelp forest monitoring as a part of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund's larger kelp program. 

Our foundation has a legacy of filling data gaps in the interest of biodiversity, and now we are doing so in our home waters through a partnership with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund's kelp forest monitoring initiative. We will help them monitor our remaining kelp forests so we can determine the best actions to protect them. Monitoring vast ecosystems is often a combination of analog and high-tech actions, in this case, volunteer divers with our partners at Reef Check Foundation will collect data manually alongside new robotic monitoring technology from partners at The Bay Foundation and Marauder Robotics. The outcome will be a complete dataset on the status of kelp beds stretching from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Southern Salish Sea.

Documenting the environmental integrity of kelp forests is a critical step in developing effective conservation policy and management, and in raising awareness about the critical role kelp plays in local ecosystems and communities.

With our eyes on kelp, we can better protect this critical marine ecosystem.

Volunteer divers with the Reef Check Foundation head into the chilly Puget Sound off Camano Island to survey kelp forests and collect data to support regional conservation efforts. Photo credit Paul G. Allen Family Foundation