Kelp forests are underwater areas with a high density of
"I can only compare these great aquatic forests...with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe so nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of kelp. Amidst the leaves of this plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, the otters, seals and porpoise, would soon perish also; and lastly, the Fuegian[s]...would...decrease in numbers and perhaps cease to exist.
Physically formed by brown
However, the influence of humans has often contributed to kelp
A wide range of sea life uses kelp forests for protection or food, including fish. In the North Pacific kelp forests, particularly
Frequently considered an
- The holdfast is a root-like mass that anchors the thallus to the sea floor, though unlike true roots it is not responsible for absorbing and delivering nutrients to the rest of the thallus.
- The stipe is analogous to a plant stalk, extending vertically from the holdfast and providing a support framework for other morphological features.
- The frondsare leaf- or blade-like attachments extending from the stipe, sometimes along its full length, and are the sites of nutrient uptake and photosynthetic activity.
In addition, many kelp species have pneumatocysts, or gas-filled bladders, usually located at the base of fronds near the stipe. These structures provide the necessary buoyancy for kelp to maintain an upright position in the water column.
The environmental factors necessary for kelp to survive include hard substrate (usually rock or sand), high nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus), and light (minimum annual irradiance dose > 50 E m−2). Especially productive kelp forests tend to be associated with areas of significant oceanographic upwelling, a process that delivers cool, nutrient-rich water from depth to the ocean's mixed surface layer. Water flow and turbulence facilitate nutrient assimilation across kelp fronds throughout the water column. Water clarity affects the depth to which sufficient light can be transmitted. In ideal conditions, giant kelp (Macrocystis spp.) can grow as much as 30–60 cm vertically per day. Some species, such as Nereocystis, are annuals, while others such as Eisenia are perennials, living for more than 20 years. In perennial kelp forests, maximum growth rates occur during upwelling months (typically spring and summer) and die-backs correspond to reduced nutrient availability, shorter photoperiods, and increased storm frequency.
Kelps are primarily associated with
Although kelp forests are unknown in tropical surface waters, a few species of Laminaria have been known to occur exclusively in tropical deep waters.
The architecture of a kelp forest ecosystem is based on its physical structure, which influences the associated species that define its community structure. Structurally, the ecosystem includes three guilds of kelp and two guilds occupied by other algae:
- Canopy kelps include the largest species and often constitute floating canopies that extend to the ocean surface (e.g., Macrocystis and Alaria).
- Stipitate kelps generally extend a few meters above the sea floor and can grow in dense aggregations (e.g., Eisenia and Ecklonia).
- Prostrate kelps lie near and along the sea floor (e.g., Laminaria).
- The benthicassemblage is composed of other algal species (e.g., filamentous and foliose functional groups, articulated corallines) and sessile organisms along the ocean bottom.
- Encrusting coralline algae directly and often extensively cover geologic substrate.
Multiple kelp species often co-exist within a forest; the term understory canopy refers to the stipitate and prostrate kelps. For example, a Macrocystis canopy may extend many meters above the seafloor towards the ocean surface, while an understory of the kelps Eisenia and Pterygophora reaches upward only a few meters. Beneath these kelps, a benthic assemblage of foliose red algae may occur. The dense vertical infrastructure with overlying canopy forms a system of microenvironments similar to those observed in a terrestrial forest, with a sunny canopy region, a partially shaded middle, and darkened seafloor.
Classic studies in kelp forest ecology have largely focused on trophic interactions (the relationships between organisms and their
The transition from macroalgal (i.e. kelp forest) to denuded landscapes dominated by sea urchins (or ‘
Though urchins are usually the dominant herbivores, others with significant interaction strengths include
Another major area of kelp forest research has been directed at understanding the spatial-temporal patterns of kelp patches. Not only do such dynamics affect the physical landscape, but they also affect species that associate with kelp for refuge or foraging activities.
- Acute and chronic fecal coliform bacteria.
- Catastrophic storms can remove surface kelp canopies through wave activity, but usually leave understory kelps intact; they can also remove urchins when little spatial refuge is available. Interspersed canopy clearings create a seascape mosaic where sunlight penetrates deeper into the kelp forest and species that are normally light-limited in the understory can flourish. Similarly, substrate cleared of kelp holdfasts can provide space for other sessile species to establish themselves and occupy the seafloor, sometimes directly competing with juvenile kelp and even inhibiting their settlement.
- El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events involve the depression of oceanographic thermoclines, severe reductions of nutrient input, and changes in storm patterns. Stress due to warm water and nutrient depletion can increase the susceptibility of kelp to storm damage and herbivorous grazing, sometimes even prompting phase shifts to urchin-dominated landscapes. In general, oceanographic conditions (that is, water temperature, currents) influence the recruitment success of kelp and its competitors, which clearly affect subsequent species interactions and kelp forest dynamics.
- Overfishing higher trophic levels that naturally regulate herbivore populations is also recognized as an important stressor in kelp forests. As described in the previous section, the drivers and outcomes of trophic cascades are important for understanding spatial-temporal patterns of kelp forests.
In addition to ecological monitoring of kelp forests before, during, and after such disturbances, scientists try to tease apart the intricacies of kelp forest dynamics using experimental manipulations. By working on smaller spatial-temporal scales, they can control for the presence or absence of specific biotic and abiotic factors to discover the operative mechanisms. For example, in southern Australia, manipulations of kelp canopy types demonstrated that the relative amount of Ecklonia radiata in a canopy could be used to predict understory species assemblages; consequently, the proportion of E. radiata can be used as an indicator of other species occurring in the environment.
Kelp forests have been important to human existence for thousands of years.
As carbon sequesters
Kelp forests grow in rocky places along the shore that are constantly eroding carrying material out to the deep sea. The kelp then sinks to the ocean floor and store the carbon where is it unlikely to be disturbed by human activity. Researchers from the University of Western Australia estimated kelp forest around Australia sequestered 1.3-2.8 teragrams of carbon per year which is 27–34% of the total annual blue carbon sequestered in the Australian continent by tidal marshes, mangrove forests and seagrass beds. Every year 200 million tons of carbon dioxide are being sequestered by macroalgae such as kelp.
Threats and management
Given the complexity of kelp forests – their variable structure, geography, and interactions – they pose a considerable challenge to environmental managers. Extrapolating even well-studied trends to the future is difficult because interactions within the ecosystem will change under variable conditions, not all relationships in the ecosystem are understood, and the nonlinear thresholds to transitions are not yet recognized. With respect to kelp forests, major issues of concern include marine pollution and water quality, kelp harvesting and fisheries, invasive species, and climate change. The most pressing threat to kelp forest preservation may be the overfishing of coastal ecosystems, which by removing higher trophic levels facilitates their shift to depauperate urchin barrens. The maintenance of biodiversity is recognized as a way of generally stabilizing ecosystems and their services through mechanisms such as functional compensation and reduced susceptibility to foreign species invasions. More recently, the 2022 IPCC report states that kelp and other seaweeds in most regions are undergoing mass mortalities from high temperature extremes and range shifts from warming, as they are stationary and cannot adapt quick enough to deal with the rapidly increasing temperature of the Earth and thus, the ocean.
In many places, managers have opted to regulate the harvest of kelp
Kelp forest restoration in California
Researchers at the Bodega Marine Laboratory of UC Davis are developing replanting strategies, and volunteers of the Orange County Coastkeeper group are replanting giant kelp. Humboldt State University began cultivating bull kelp in its research farm in 2021.
Research efforts at the state level to prevent kelp forest collapse in California were announced in July 2020.
At the federal level, H.R. 4458, the Keeping Ecosystems Living and Productive (KELP) Act, introduced July 29, 2021, seeks to establish a new grant program within NOAA for kelp forest restoration.
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