On Wednesday February 26th, 2020, Reef Check was awarded a $500,000 grant from the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) to begin kelp forest restoration efforts in Mendocino County. In collaboration with commercial fishermen and recreational divers, Reef Check aims to remove urchins from targeted locations with the goal of providing opportunities for kelp forest to regrow where they once were abundant. This project will play a vital role in how resource managers choose to move forward with kelp restoration strategies state-wide, thus helping us to evaluate the costs and benefits of human intervention in a dynamic oceanic environment.
Since 2014, bull kelp in northern California, primarily along the Sonoma and Mendocino county coastline, has declined more than 90% due to a combination of extreme warm water events and multiple ecological stressors, including significant increases in purple sea urchin populations. This has led to a large-scale shift from bull kelp forests to urchin barrens across most of the region. This shift has caused significant losses of kelp forest biodiversity and ecosystem services, resulting in the closure of the recreational red abalone fishery (estimated at $44 Million non-market value) in 2018 and the collapse of the North Coast commercial red urchin fishery ($3 Million ex-vessel value) beginning in 2015.
With this project, Reef Check seeks to establish three restoration sites in Mendocino county: Noyo Harbor, Caspar Cove, and Portuguese Beach. These sites will serve as refuges and seed banks for surrounding areas in hopes that kelp can reestablish along the coast. If the first year of this project is successful, we will aim to expand the effort to other areas throughout Mendocino and Sonoma counties to create a network of kelp forest in the North Coast. In addition to the potential ecological benefits of this project, it will also provide a substantial economic benefit to the fishing community of Fort Bragg which has been hard hit by the effective loss of its two most important fisheries.
Reef Check California has monitored California's Marine Protected Areas for over a decade to help understand their ecology and manage them effectively. This restoration project is a new direction for the California program. Reef Check's Executive Director, Jan Freiwald, said "It was wonderful to see the community support expressed by local fishermen and others at yesterday's OPC meeting. We are honored to have earned their trust and be working with them to hopefully bring back this iconic ecosystem that has shaped the lives of so many in the Fort Bragg community for many generations. We are excited to bring our experience in citizen science, kelp forest monitoring and community engagement to this new hands-on restoration project in Mendocino county."