Leveraging new technology and partnerships to track Puget Sound’s kelp forests, integrate diverse knowledge sources, and help close data gaps

Puget Sound kelp forests, fundamental to our marine ecosystem, are currently in decline due to threats from pollution and climate change. The Samish Indian Nation estimates there has been a 36% decline in kelp forests in the San Juan Islands in less than ten years. In the South Puget Sound, 80% of bull kelp has been lost in the last 50 years. Bull kelp beds around Bainbridge Island have disappeared entirely, with the last bed blinking out around 2015.

Kelp is a powerhouse in the marine ecosystem, mitigating ocean acidification, and transforming sunlight and carbon dioxide into food for fish, crab, and shellfish. Here in the Pacific Northwest, underwater kelp forests are lifelines for critically endangered salmon and orcas and commercially important fish and crab. Many fisheries and restaurants depend on the health and sustainability of these kelp beds. Kelp forests are vital to our food chain and are cultural keystone habitats for Tribal communities, who continue to depend on kelp for traditional foods, livelihoods, and customs.

Long-term underwater ecological studies of kelp forests in Puget Sound have been limited. This gap in ecological knowledge presents a serious roadblock to conservation and restoration.

A major bottleneck in tracking and monitoring kelp forests in Puget Sound, and in conservation and restoration of marine ecosystems in general, is inability to see and be underwater regularly. Without reliable, near real-time data streams, tracking changes in marine habitats as well as fish and invertebrate populations is challenging and costly. This is particularly true for kelp forest ecosystems which are often located in high-energy environments that can be difficult to access.

Puget Sound Restoration Fund and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation are launching a three-year, comprehensive kelp forest monitoring initiative to get more eyes on kelp. The initiative establishes an expanded network of underwater kelp monitoring sites in Puget Sound. Through dive surveys, new technology, and expanded partnerships with Tribal Nations, resource agencies and local communities, the effort will build critical knowledge about Puget Sound’s kelp forests. The initiative includes new partnerships with Marauder Robotics, The Bay Foundation, and Reef Check Foundation. These new underwater monitoring capabilities will augment surface-based monitoring of kelp forests in Puget Sound by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

This coordinated monitoring and data sharing will provide a better understanding of the current state and threats to kelp forests and the broader Puget Sound seascape. Such knowledge will result in more effective protection and restoration, and provide a model for coordinated monitoring beyond Puget Sound.

All Eyes on Deck: New Partnerships and Technology

This project weaves together Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s long history of partnerships on kelp and shellfish ecology, and invaluable expertise from three other all-star organizations. The project team includes:

Eyes Far and Wide: Our Network of Index Sites

Thanks to a highly networked community of partners, the Eyes on Kelp initiative includes underwater monitoring at 14 index sites throughout the southern Salish Sea, spanning a range of environmental conditions and human use impacts. To cover this many sites, we are so fortunate to be working with the following groups: 

Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Makah Tribe, Marine GEO, Northwest Straits Commission, NOAA Fisheries, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Port of Seattle, Samish Indian Nation, Seattle Aquarium, Squaxin Island Tribe, Suquamish Tribe, University of Oregon, University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, United States Geological Survey, the Washington State Legislature, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and Washington Sea Grant

If you have interest in expanding the network by adding a site, we would love to discuss that further, so please reach out. Explore the sites – shown in each site’s general vicinity – on the map to the right! 

Eyes Focused: Project Elements

Site Surveys and Monitoring
The project leverages existing expertise from partner organizations. Specific objectives include:

  • Develop a program to coordinate data sharing, archiving and survey planning across sites;
  • Train a network of local volunteer divers in species identification and survey protocols in order to collect data on status and trends of our region’s kelp beds;
  • Perform underwater ecological monitoring at 14 kelp index sites; and
  • Deploy sensors at all sites to measure environmental parameters.

Site Instrumentation and Technology Advancement
Marauder Robotics has been working with The Bay Foundation to develop and trial new kelp forest monitoring and restoration technology in Santa Monica Bay, California. This technology will be further developed, tested, and refined in Puget Sound. 
Specific objectives include:

  • Identify top tier needs of resource managers in Washington to facilitate best management of kelp habitats;
  • Design and test a platform that automates tasks performed by divers including data collection from the seafloor to the surface, and is custom-fit for the needs identified in Puget Sound; and
  • Determine how the automated data collection platform, or an updated version of it, can address other needs of managers, researchers and restoration practitioners.

Eyes Ahead: Building a Robust Monitoring Community

Beyond collecting additional data to complement surface-based monitoring of kelp forests by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, we will leverage local knowledge by establishing an expanded network of partners who are closely tied to places where kelp index sites are located. These partners will have awareness of their local waters in a way that monitoring crews might not. Local ecological knowledge can also reveal historical baselines that might not be present in the scientific literature, but are still alive in the memories and lived experiences of those in the community.

Overall, this network of organizations – spanning multiple locations and communities – will provide a better understanding of the current state of and threats to kelp forests and the broader Puget Sound seascape. Such knowledge will result in more effective protection and restoration, and provide a model for coordinated monitoring beyond Puget Sound.

Eyes on You: What Can You Do?

Kelp forests are one of the most productive habitats on the planet – and we are among the beneficiaries. Fisheries that humans depend on around the world, including here in Puget Sound, are powered by kelp carbon that works its way through the food web. Kelp forests that hug our shores are more than just habitat; they are lifeways and lifelines – for crab, salmon, orcas, and us.

To build support for kelp conservation and recovery, we need to connect the dots between KELP and US. Our communities and cultures have been nurtured by healthy marine systems for a long time. When a defining and foundational piece of local abundance begins to unravel, we need to join hands and take a leap toward collective action.

You can find a broad set of additional resources, such as media, reports and research, and storymaps, at Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s Bull Kelp Restoration webpage.

CONTACT   Betsy Peabody & Jodie Toft | Eyes on Kelp Initiative Co-Leads