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By Julianne E. Steers

Featured photo: Courtesy of Julianne E. Steers

Submerge beneath the sea, look up, and you may think you are enveloped by trees. Kelp, the sea’s equivalent to trees.

More than a mere seaweed, giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) is the foundation for an entire ocean ecosystem, towering up from the seafloor to tangled canopies on the surface, offering nutrients and shelter to fish, lobsters, and marine mammals.

Kelp forests are highly productive foundation species along much of the Orange County coastline. As a result, kelp is crucial to the ecological, social, and economic well-being of coastal communities.

This brown alga has an alter ego. Face value displays a beautiful habitat for those undersea denizens of the deep, while this kelp is working overtime absorbing carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds, helping clean the atmosphere. Those terrestrial trees are great, but kelp captures up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests.

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will play a necessary role in preventing rising temperatures and future climate catastrophe. We need more kelp to multiply these positive effects.

Our coastline is no stranger to artificial reefs. Just look to the east and west off San Clemente Pier and you will see the canopy generated by the foundation of Wheeler North Reef. We have made great strides over the years toward encouraging kelp growth through the establishment of artificial reefs and, in some cases, a sprinkling of kelp spores helps those barren reefs.

Yet, because of a combination of stressors, kelp forests are under threat and have declined close to home.

Recently, the robust El Niño event produced a “Blob” of warm ocean water that disrupted the West Coast marine ecosystem and declined growth of our undersea forests.

Active restoration of kelp ecosystems is an emerging field that aims to reverse these declines by mitigating negative stressors. Just as we plant more trees, our underwater forests may be “seeded” as well.

Planting and protecting our coastal ecosystem will strengthen our future.

Julianne Steers is a marine biologist and conservation photographer. She has an extensive background in ecology, and has been researching, diving, and exploring the local ecosystem and beyond to sustain the natural world.

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