By Asha Reardon
In my hometown of Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington, there used to be a kelp forest off of the island’s coast. For the past several decades, kelp levels off the coast of Washington have declined by 60 to 80 percent. Bainbridge Island’s last bed of kelp disappeared in 2017. For the time being, there’s no evidence that the kelp will return.
While the full story of the kelp’s disappearance is still unclear, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources has identified several contributing factors. Kelp has been damaged by oil spills, and as climate change raises ocean temperatures, there has been an uptick in kelp-eating urchins. It is clear that human activities are harming kelp forests, preventing the kelp from providing benefits to the ecosystem.
Kelp benefits the oceans and the planet in many different ways. Kelp forests provide habitat, food, and shelter for 1,000 different species, including seals, sea lions, sea otters, invertebrates, fish, sharks, and seabirds. Even gray whales have been seen in kelp forests, most likely using the forest as a cover from orcas. Many of these organisms use the kelp’s thick blades as shelter, protecting their young from predators and storms. Kelp is also a rich source of nutrients required by both animals and humans.
Kelp also benefits the ocean water itself. Through photosynthesis, the kelp absorbs excess carbon dioxide, helping to de-acidify the water. This has the potential to reverse ocean acidification. By keeping the ocean’s pH in balance, the kelp helps to ensure that important shell-building species are still able to build their shells. Although climate change is contributing to kelp die-offs along the West Coast, kelp’s natural absorption of carbon dioxide makes it a powerful tool for reducing climate change. In 2021, an expert panel brought together by the Energy Futures Commission found that human-cultivated kelp has the potential to remove 1 billion to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually.
I hope that scientists are able to figure out exactly what made Bainbridge Island lose its kelp forest, so that they can find a way to restore the habitat. I personally want to focus on stopping the disappearance of kelp as well, because the ocean depends on the many benefits of kelp.
Asha is a sophomore at Hyla High School on Bainbridge Island, Washington State.