Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) near Santa Cruz Island

Kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) near Santa Cruz Island

Wrack Without Ruin

Kelp Food-Chain and Regrowth Studies Planned

The National Science Foundation awarded a $997,312 grant to UCSB researchers this week for a study of the cross-ecosystem relationship between kelp forests and beach environments. A team of graduate and undergraduate UCSB researchers, led by Jenifer Dugan, associate research biologist at the school’s Marine Science Institute, will examine how washed-up drift kelp, or wrack, contributes to the food webs in sandy beach ecosystems.

Kelp provides a much-needed supply of nutrients and food sources to the plant-deprived sandy shores and the organisms that live upon them, but the relationship between the undersea forests and the recipient beaches has been understudied. Focusing on the Santa Barbara Channel’s Mohawk Reef system and 10 kilometers of neighboring coastline, the UCSB researchers will spend two years measuring changes in intertidal community structures based on the amount of kelp that arrives on land.

“The recently funded study will provide needed new insights into the dynamics of connectivity between a donor ecosystem, kelp forests, and a recipient ecosystem, sandy beaches, using the Santa Barbara Channel as the study region,” Dugan said. “By investigating links between kelp forests and sandy beaches, this project will expand and transform our understanding of cross-ecosystem fluxes in the coastal ocean and enhance our ability to manage and conserve coastal resources as they respond to the Earth’s ever-changing climate system.”

Researchers will track the fate of drifting kelp with a combination of GPS devices and by recovering “drift cards” affixed to 2,000 kelp plants. The results will be used to predict conditions along 100 kilometers of Southern California coast. The study will allow researchers to better predict how food webs are affected by, and respond to, environmental changes. Kelp forests export more than 90 percent of the resources they produce to nearby sandy beaches, ecosystems especially susceptible to climate variance.

Representative Lois Capps lauded the study. “Understanding how ecosystems work allows us to better manage and protect our local resources,” she said. “This important grant will go a long way toward helping us understand the interaction between kelp forests and beaches, and I am proud that UCSB continues to lead the way with coastal science research.”

The study comes just as a different kelp experiment — to be carried out by the Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment (BEACON) — goes for review on Friday by the California Coastal Commission. BEACON’s study, if approved, would see the installation of 212 4” x 30” granite columns across three areas between 800-3,000 feet offshore of Goleta Beach in order to encourage the regrowth of kelp forests lost to warming oceans. The group hopes kelp plants will attach to and grow on the granite columns and nearby substrate. If successful, the experiment will begin to reforest the sandy bottoms off Santa Barbara, once home to as much as 18 square miles of kelp bed but reduced to a mere 6 square miles’ worth following the El Niño storms of the ‘80s.

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