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B.C. researchers working to restore declining kelp forests

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Kelp forests off the coast of British Columbia are in a state of decline, predominantly due to climbing ocean temperatures.

"We’ve lost about 90 to 95 per cent of kelp in some of the regions around British Columbia,” said Jasmin Schuster, a research scientist and program manager for the Kelp Rescue Initiative.

Schuster says it's alarming for a number of reasons.

“They provide really critical habitat for fish and marine invertebrates,” said the research scientist. “They also provide food.”

They also produce oxygen, all while drawing in carbon from our coastal waters.

“I like to think of them as the coral reefs of temperate, colder waters in this region,” said Schuster.

A partnership between the University of Victoria, the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and coastal First Nations is now looking to reverse that decline. It will begin in the waters off Bamfield, on Vancouver Island.

“There’s just certain areas out at Bamfield where the water is warmer than other areas and those hot pockets essentially are the areas where we’re losing kelp,” said Julia Baum, professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Victoria.

Using data collected by the Marine Sciences Centre going back to the 1970s, researchers have been able to pinpoint areas that have seen the greatest declines.

“We’re now trying to figure out how to restore the ecosystems in those areas,” said Baum.

It’s a four-year project funded by a grant of $3.7 million through Fisheries and Oceans Canada. How to restore those critical ocean forests is still a bit of mystery for researchers.

“Kelp restoration is still in its infancy,” said Baum.

Kelp anchors itself to rocks, so one of the techniques being tried is to begin in an aquatic nursery.

“One of the methods that we’re trying is called green gravel,” said the professor.

That is a process of growing the baby kelp on little rocks. Researchers need to then figure out best practices for getting those rocks to the sea floor.

“You can either toss them in the ocean from a boat or you could have divers actually take them down and individually put them out,” said Baum.

Another threat to kelp is sea urchins. They are known to feed on and decimate kelp forests.

“We are experimenting with caging or fencing off certain areas so that we can keep the urchins out,” said Schuster.

Those are just a few challenges that researchers will be looking to overcome in the next four years in a mission to restore the kelp forests.

“I think we are going to be ready in the next couple of years to do this at increasingly large scales,” said Schuster.

“They’re important, beautiful ecosystems, and I think we would lose a lot if we let them go,” said Baum.

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