Kelp Forests Thrive in California's Underwater Parks

I always travel with my swim goggles, just in case I have a chance to get into the water. They came in handy the other day when I was kayaking off the coast of Palos Verdes in Southern California. I slipped them on, and -- deserting my friendly co-kayaker -- I jumped into the Pacific to get a better look at California’s signature marine habitat: the kelp forest.

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With a big breath, I was able to pull myself down among the kelp shoots. The water was a clear aquamarine, and sunlight was filtering through waves of green kelp. It was a magical feeling, looking up, and looking down, down, down, and all around. I saw lots of fish, all shapes and sizes, silver-orange and pink, thin and round and ray. It was breathtakingly beautiful (although, technically speaking, I was holding my breath).

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What’s amazing is that this particular kelp forest, already so enchanting, might not have even reached its full potential. In the years to come, it’s expected to host even more fish, bigger fish, and a greater diversity of marine life, because it’s in one of California’s Marine Protected Areas. There are nearly 100 of these underwater parks along California’s coast. Stretching from Mexico to Oregon, MPAs form a cache of protected habitat where fish can thrive, and depleted populations can rebuild. These “hope spots” are critical for maintaining the health of our oceans.

The area where I was swimming only came under protection last year, but the work to create California’s marine reserves began more than 12 years ago. A driving factor was the distressing state of kelp forests. They are California’s iconic marine environment, but decades of pollution and overfishing had taken their toll. Several popular commercial fish species, such as lobster and abalone, which live in kelp beds, were in decline. Scientists, and many others who watch the ocean closely, could see the problem--but no one could agree on what to do about it.

I’m proud to say that NRDC's ocean experts, supported by our members, helped harness the power of people across a broad spectrum of interests (including fishing groups, surfers, and just ocean lovers like me, among others), to work out an important part of the solution together: the law that created California’s underwater parks, the first ever statewide network of protected ocean areas. These areas encompass not just kelp forests, but tide pools, coral gardens, and submarine canyons, all vital and disparate habitat that nurtures California’s bountiful marine life.

What a thrill to be able to swim through such a magical environment, with the awareness that the work of my colleagues helped protect this place. Their work has become a model not just for other states but internationally, as well, as nations seek to safeguard their valuable fisheries and ensure the sustainability of their ocean resources.

Yet it was sobering, too, to think of the work ahead of us. While kelp forests and the life they shelter appear to be thriving under their new protections, oceans around the world are facing another complex threat: acidification from carbon pollution. As the latest IPCC report highlights, excess carbon is not only fueling climate change, it’s literally changing the chemistry of the world’s oceans, affecting levels of salt and oxygen as well as pH. These changes can have dramatic effects on ocean life, particularly coral reefs and shellfish—it’s already affecting the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest.

Stopping carbon pollution at its primary source—coal-fired power plants—is a critical step forward for healthy oceans. We are urging the administration to make the upcoming limits on pollution from existing power plants as strong as possible. We also need to boost monitoring of ocean acidity. My colleagues are working with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Duke University to study where the impacts of acidification will be greatest, so we can move quickly to help communities and businesses prepare.

And we need to continue to build resiliency in our ocean environments so we can better withstand the changes that are already taking place. California has protected a full 16 percent of its coastal waters, putting the state in the vanguard of global ocean protection. It’s an investment that will help sustain its valuable coastal economy, and a critical tool for ocean conservation in the decades to come.

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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