Help the Kelp

Latest update February 14, 2018 Started on January 11, 2018

The Noyo Center for Marine Science and its collaborators are attempting to establish kelp refuges near the few healthy stands of kelp, in hopes that the kelp will be able to recruit and regrow. Doing this means finding the most effective way to remove purple sea urchins and prevent re-invasion of the young kelp beds. This video shows a collaborator- commercial urchin diver Jon Holcombe- testing his airlift device, essentially a vacuum to help increase the efficiency of removal. The Trident drone will help the Noyo Center monitor and document the reinvasion rate of urchin and the regrowth of marine algae.

January 11, 2018
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Purple Urchin Removal -- February 2-3, 2018

This most recent video, taken by Jon Holcomb, a professional urchin diver, was taken off Caspar on the North Coast of California. The video shows a stunningly bare ocean floor where once rich stands of bull kelp thrived. Scattered across the seabed are groups of purple urchin, which Jon is removing in an effort to assist the regrowth of kelp. Two divers were involved in this removal dive, which took seven hours over two days.

One small note of hope from Jon – the purple urchins are now so weak that they cannot move far, so clearing areas of urchins and keeping them clear may indeed allow kelp spores to attach to the rocks and begin to grow, without being immediately eaten.

2018 will be a pilot year for Noyo’s Help the Kelp campaign—more divers will be enlisted to remove urchins from additional areas, and Noyo volunteers will be there to continue the measuring studies. The Trident drone will help with the monitoring and documentation of the various sites.


Typical amount of urchins removed in one diving session, about 380 pounds. (Photo: Natalie West)

Noyo volunteer, Steve Brekke-Brownell, measuring an urchin using manual calipers. One thousand urchins are measured for each session, usually by 3 teams of 3 persons: two measurers and one recorder per team. (Photo: Natalie West)

This photo was taken during a recent measuring and shows an urchin of reproductive size (50-75 mm). The gonads are smaller than would be normal in a healthy urchin, however, the presence of some eggs confirm that the urchins must be removed, not crushed in place, which could result in release of the eggs into the ocean. (Photo: Natalie West)

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Noyo Center volunteers working as citizen scientists counting, measuring and weighing urchin brought in by the divers. (photo: Sheila Semans)

Purple urchin mass on the holdfast of giant kelp, and nibble at the stipe until it breaks free and floats away. (photo: K. Joe)

A knot of bull kelp that washed in after a recent storm. Notice the holdfasts attached to the abalone shells. The abalone in the bottom of the photo is shrunken in its shell from starvation. (photo: anonymous)

These purple urchin are actually eating the abalone. The are far more opportunistic feeders than the kelp-dependent abalone. (photo: Cynthia Catton)

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Expedition Background

The Noyo Center for Marine Science is located in Fort Bragg, California, on the rugged and beautiful North Coast in Mendocino County. With a mission to advance ocean conservation through education, exploration and experience, our non-profit engages in critical research and offers a rich array of hands-on science programs for all ages. A fully independent non-profit for only two years, the Noyo Center has already established itself as a significant center for marine mammal studies. In addition to being part of the nation-wide mammal stranding network, we have successfully articulated the skeletons of sea lions, an adult female elephant seal, and most recently, a complete adult male Orca, which at 26 feet is the largest articulated Orca on display in the world. And we have a 73-ft blue whale skeleton yet to go!

Most recently, the Noyo Center for Marine Science has begun collaborating with local commercial urchin divers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other NGOs in a Help the Kelp campaign. Local kelp forests have been devastated by a combination of warming seas, toxic algae blooms and the decline in sea stars due to wasting disease, which has resulted in an explosive increase in kelp-eating purple sea urchins. The result has been a 93% decline in kelp forests with massive impacts on the environment and marine life. Red abalone, an important local species, are starving and dying in record numbers, prompting the recent closure of the fishery. And without the kelp forest, small fish no longer have protective habitat in which to grow, so aren't there to feed shore birds or larger fish. Seals and sea lions have to travel farther to find the fish they need to survive. All of this impacts our local fisheries and the eco-tourist industry so necessary to our small, rural community.

Hi. Are these urchins a native species? If not, what are their natural predators? How big are the urchin barrens? Do they cover the entire coast or are they patchy? Can divers alone solve the problem? Sorry for all the questions but it's really interesting to see this. There are similar problems with urchin barrens in Tasmania, Australia and the encouragement of natural predators (lobsters) is helping to reverse the population explosion to some extent...

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