Thursday, June 24, 1999
Breaking waves buoy the tiny metal boat as it pushes from the Santa Cruz Harbor into the open ocean. A moist, salty haze hangs in the morning air, yet visibility is good as the vessel drifts into a kelp bed just off Pleasure Point.
A sea otter resting on its weedy raft cracks open breakfast. Suspiciously eyeing the approaching boat, a sea lion quickly vanishes into the kelp forest. The boat sways frantically as Dave Ebert, vice president of U.S. Abalone, a Davenport aquaculture firm, and his crew splash wet, slippery whips of kelp over the railings and into waiting nets.
Less than 30 minutes later, the nets and deck loaded with long brown fronds, the boat''s revving motor pulls the small craft away from the bed. "I don''t exactly see a path of destruction out here, do you?" Ebert asks with a smile.
Yet many in the area''s environmental community do see a tangled mass of trouble, complicated by ocean resource mismanagement and a crisis-oriented approach to habitat preservation. They disagree with harvesters like Ebert and with the state Department of Fish and Game, arguing that effects we can''t see or understand threaten the ocean''s kelp forest ecosystem. These activists grow increasingly concerned that California''s aquaculture boom and its harvesting activities bring with them a hidden cost: kelp forest depletion, especially within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Even after last year''s National Ocean Conference, celebrating 1998 as the Year of the Oceans, and the passage of Assemblymember Fred Keeley''s (D-Boulder Creek) popular Assembly Bill 1241, which overhauls state marine resource conservation practices with an emphasis on sustainability, there''s been no significant change in the management of Monterey Bay''s kelp forest ecosystem.
Save Our Shores Executive Director Vicki Nichols says that over the past year, the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit''s hotlines have been flooded with questions and complaints about kelp harvesting in the sanctuary. Nichols has difficulty reassuring callers because she sees the Fish and Game Commission''s kelp harvesting regulations as vague and not enforced. (The state Fish and Game Commission sets regulations, while the Department of Fish and Game enforces them.)
Nichols cites 1996 as a critical year for a rising tide of concern over kelp harvesting within the sanctuary. That winter, highly visible kelp harvesters contracted by Pacific Mariculture, Inc., a second Davenport-based abalone farm that is no longer in production, sent Monterey city officials, kayakers, divers, and professionals in the tourism industry into a tailspin. Dining tourists'' mouths--some still savoring the taste of tender abalone--dropped open as they watched, from restaurant bay windows, beloved fuzzy otters flee heavily harvested beds. Professional divers taking visitors to explore the kelp forests could find only traces of them.
That year, kayakers, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, various abalone farmers who use the kelp as feed, and local politicians held emergency meetings. After contentious debate, the council concluded that kelp harvesters should work together and police themselves to avoid stripping the beds.
To that end, local harvesters formed the Monterey Kelp Cooperative in late 1998. Its three-person board of governors includes a representative from state Fish and Game, a scientist appointed by the Sanctuary, and a kelp harvester, Art Seavey, co-owner of the Monterey Abalone Company on Monterey''s Wharf #2.
Seavey says the condition of Monterey Bay''s kelp forest has "improved dramatically over the past year," which he attributes partially to the creation of the Cooperative and partly to this year''s La Ni¤a, which brought an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich deep waters to the bay''s surface. Also, he notes, "there''s less demand for kelp," largely because of the demise of Pacific Mariculture, which Seavey says was one of the area''s biggest abalone producers.
"We have a very lush kelp canopy right now in the bay," he notes.
Nevertheless, concerned groups say over-harvesting continues. "There''s still a lack of clear regulations," says Nichols, her piercing blue eyes surveying the sanctuary coastline. In 1997, Save Our Shores and Friends of the Sea Otter wrote to the Department of Fish and Game asking for protection against kelp over-harvesting. The department responded that it didn''t have the funds and did not feel it was a priority to review existing regulations. It routinely revisits regulations every five years but rarely makes drastic changes in harvesting policies.
"From an ecological perspective, kelp is crucial to the food chain," Nichols says. "The Fish and Game Commission thinks there''s no problem. They say kelp grows so fast it''s not a concern. I''d love to believe that, but I don''t think anybody truly knows the sustainable levels of harvesting. There''s a lack of clear management plans."
Really Good Weed
Few scientists would argue with the belief that kelp is an integral player in the marine ecosystem. In 1860, Charles Darwin wrote an essay in praise of kelp. "If in any country a forest was destroyed," he wrote, "I do not believe nearly so many species would perish as would here from the destruction of kelp."
There are two species of giant kelp, known in the scientific community as macrocystis pyrifera and macrocystis intergrifolia. Both are in many ways wonder plants. They grow in the temperate oceans of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, but tend to favor the coast stretching from Baja California to San Mateo County. In optimal conditions, giant kelp can grow up to a meter a day, making it the fastest growing plant on the planet''s surface, with the possible exception of bamboo.
These swaying forests create a unique habitat that provides food and shelter to nearly 800 species, according to a 1992 California Sea Grant publication. With its holdfasts, giant kelp attaches to a rocky substrate and uses all of its surfaces to absorb nutrients from the water as it grows. It grows from the bottom up, meaning the newest parts of the plant are the fronds at the water''s surface. Kelp fronds can reach up to 150 feet long, and each plant can develop up to 100 fronds.
Kelp thrives in cool and calm waters, meaning El Nino was hell on the plants. Last year, violent storms and raised water temperatures devastated kelp beds. Aerial photography showed severe decimation of the forests lining the Monterey Bay. "Kelp dies back naturally during winter months," explains Peter Raimondi, a professor of biology at University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). "But [as] in both 1982 and , rough waters can rip out a plant''s holdfast and use that plant to thrash the surrounding bed."
But scientists and kelp harvesters both agree that the Monterey Bay''s kelp canopy is back to normal, even thriving, this year. Kelp is hardly a fragile flower. "Kelp can sustain heavy harvesting, much heavier than any terrestrial plant," says Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Bill Douros.
Not only does kelp grow extremely quickly, says marine ecologist and lecturer Jim Watanabe of Hopkins Marine Station, but a large portion of the surface fronds, which have a natural lifespan of just six to eight months, breaks off naturally every winter, particularly during stormy weather, and floats away. "Out by Point Joe, it''s so rough in winter that all the kelp loses its surface canopy every year," he points out.
Given that so much of the kelp dies or is broken off naturally, Watanabe continues, the kind of surface kelp hand-harvesting that local harvesters engage in doesn''t have any adverse effect on the plant. In fact, he says, it helps the plant''s overall health by lightening the upper canopy and allowing more sunlight to penetrate down to the kelp''s roots. "As long as you don''t uproot the entire plant, you''re helping it by pruning it this way," he says.
Some studies indicate harvesting the upper layer of the canopy can be beneficial to kelp by preventing plants from growing top heavy and becoming uprooted. Critics complain, however, that studies such as these, and others, are tainted because they were paid for by the industry, particularly San Diego-based Kelco Corporation, the world''s largest kelp harvesting company. Still, harvesting critics have little hard evidence to refute Kelco''s studies or similar studies conducted by the state Fish and Game Department.
Meanwhile, the scientific community is divided over the issue. While most agree harvesting isn''t catastrophic to the kelp itself, many biologists say that studies focus on the health of plants, but little is known about the effect of harvesting on the ecosystem as a whole.
This kelp forest ecology supports ocean life as we know it. Sea otters like to raft in kelp beds and male otters use it to define territory. Young fish, such as rockfish and surf perch, graze on plankton found in the top several feet of the kelp canopy. Migrating gray whales, especially the young, stick close to kelp beds for protection. Then there''s the lower profile organisms and critters like turban snails, kelp crabs and sea urchins, which all feed on kelp and are in turn fed upon by larger marine animals.
"It''s not a disadvantage to the plant to harvest it," says Lynda Goff, a biology professor at UCSC. "But harvesting is going to impact the community underneath. Anytime you change a community, that''s a big deal."
Jim Estes, UCSC professor of marine biology and a nationally renowned sea otter expert, says kelp is crucial to otter populations, but the effects of harvesting on sea mammals just hasn''t been studied extensively. For example, little is also known about why otter populations have dropped over the last several years. "There are a lot of things we don''t know about the ocean, and that''s part of the problem," Estes says.
Watanabe, who has done extensive research on the bay''s kelp forest, is more sanguine. "There are certainly interdependencies within the species in the kelp forest, but I''d bet you dollars to doughnuts these species would never miss the amount of kelp that''s harvested in Monterey Bay," he says. "It may possibly have effects on the species, but it''s nothing they don''t see naturally anyway, every year."
Cut Throat Competition
"From our point of view, harvesters could remove the whole canopy and it wouldn''t harm the kelp bed," says Jerry Spratt, associate marine biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. "It''s like mowing a lawn. It just grows back."
Every five years, Fish and Game reviews its regulations governing kelp harvesting along California''s coast, and department officials are scheduled to review the rules in the summer of 2000. While Fish and Game agreed last October to consider early studies of the management plan, no changes have been made. Current regulations limit the depth of cutting to no more than four feet below the ocean surface, and in some cases harvesting is limited to 50 percent of a kelp bed''s canopy.
The commission has designated 55 percent of California''s kelp beds for lease to the highest qualified bidder. Another 38 percent are reserved for open harvest by any licensed kelp harvester, and licenses are a mere $100 a pop. Harvest of the remaining 7 percent, according to Fish and Game regulations, "has been deemed to be potentially too disruptive to the environment to be allowed."
Seventeen designated kelp beds are found within the boundaries of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Eleven are open to licensed harvesters, and the remaining six beds can be leased. Of the 150,000 to 200,000 tons of kelp harvested off the coast of California each year, only 6,500 tons are harvested within the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. Monterey Bay may be home to the largest national protected marine sanctuary in the country, but its users are engaged in a constant battle for elbow room.
Among kelp harvesters, turf wars have erupted only in open beds where, unlike leased spots, territory boundaries are ambiguous. Lease holders are required to keep track of how much of the forest canopy has been harvested, as they can cut no more than 50 percent at one time. But in open beds, such as most located in Monterey Bay, the actual percentage of canopy harvested in a specific bed is often anybody''s guess.
"Harvesters can come back the next day and cut the other half of a bed, leaving an area denuded of kelp," says Rachel Saunders, director of the Pacific Habitat Conservation Program for the Center for Marine Conservation.
"It became clear as we dealt with the short-term over-harvesting crisis in 1996 that there was no mechanism for stopping this from taking place because it was, and still is, legal," says Michelle Knight, Pacific Grove councilmember and co-owner of Adventures by the Sea, a Monterey firm that runs kayaking trips and other sea-going tourist activities.
After the 1996 incident, Monterey County Hospitality Association President Sam Teel said the stripping of the beds displayed "callous disregard for our near-shore environment." The Department of Fish and Game commonly frames these complaints not as biological concerns for the kelp, but as "user conflicts," taking a somewhat dismissive attitude towards critics.
"You can say cutting kelp displaces rockfish. But fish swim and canopies come and go," Spratt says. "Kelp harvesting has been going on for a long time, and it isn''t going to harm the kelp beds. It''s just a problem for some people." Spratt says complaints are often based on socioeconomic concerns rather than biological threats to the ecosystem.
Meanwhile, Dale Glantz, manager of harvesting and marine resources for Kelco, expresses sympathy for those "socioeconomic" concerns. "Tourists like to come and watch sea otters, and kelp beds are popular with otters," Glantz says. "If you remove a canopy right in front of a tourist spot, other people and their businesses are going to be affected."
When asked about solutions, Glantz sighs, "Harvesters really need to start working together." He traces over-harvesting to a lack of cooperation between competing harvesters. "When there was only one company, it was easier to know how much of a particular canopy has been harvested," Glantz says.
Jim Watanabe at the Hopkins Marine Station believes the local kelp forest is being well managed, both by Fish and Game and the harvesters. Saunders disagrees, saying, "it may be time for the government to step in and provide the resources and oversight that have been lacking" in harvesting decisions.
Meanwhile, many non-harvesting businesses feel left out of the loop. Knight says her company depends on a healthy marine ecosystem. "Now if one company decides not to harvest a highly visible bed, another ship just takes its place," she says. "[Last year was] a horrible year because of El Ni¤o. The forest is under great biological stress, but they''re just cutting anyway."
Watanabe says he doesn''t understand why there''s so much fuss about the environmental dangers of kelp harvesting, when there are so many other, more pressing issues that should be of greater concern to those who love the bay. "I''m not really sure why people are so up in arms about it," he says. "Of all the harvesting going on in Monterey Bay, this is one of the least destructive. Harvesting of fish stocks has a much worse record of being sustainable. Our fisheries are much more susceptible to collapse than the kelp forest.
"If you''ve got to harvest a resource, giant kelp is one of the best."
Down on the Farm
Dave Ebert, who has a Ph.D in marine ecology from Moss Landing Marine Lab, enjoys kayaking and diving in his spare time. Standing over the Davenport shoreline farms of U.S. Abalone, Ebert says his aquaculture business is all about protecting resources.
"I love the sea. I grew up on it," says Ebert, who grew up playing in the waves along the Monterey shoreline, and who sub-titled his company "Aquaculture in Harmony with Nature." Ebert runs the four-acre abalone farm with his brother and father, Earl Ebert, who was senior marine biologist for Monterey with the Department of Fish and Game for more than 20 years and who pioneered the technology for farming abalone that his sons use today.
While Kelco harvests kelp mainly to extract algin and uses it for high-grade products like pharmaceuticals and food products, Ebert feeds the weeds to his two million growing abalone.
"It''s the ab farmers who need healthy kelp. It''s the ab farmers who depend on it the most," he says. "Without it, what would I feed my abalone? If somebody came up with an affordable AB Chow (a prepared abalone feed currently being developed by Sea Grant), we''d stop harvesting and use it."
He sees harvesting the ocean as an environmentally sound practice, explaining that kelp cutting has gone on since at least 1913, the year the first records were kept. Ebert points out that a study of kelp harvesting in Monterey Bay just completed by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary reports more than 200,000 tons of wet-weight kelp is produced annually in the Cannery Row area, from the Breakwater to Cypress Point. That same study goes on to report that kelp harvesters cut just 600 tons of that kelp each year, about 2 percent of the total.
"It''s a matter of perspective," says Ebert, who has taught oceanography and marine ecology at Hartnell College. "The abalone farmers just hand-harvest at the surface. The majority of the kelp lies below the surface."
Art Seavey of Monterey Abalone Company agrees that kelp harvesting in and of itself is not the villain. "There have been a lot of scientific studies done on kelp harvesting, reams and reams of it," he says. "Basically, it is possible to over-harvest, but also to harvest sustainably and not harm the ecosystem. We make every effort to harvest sustainably. We [harvesters] depend more than anyone on having a sustainable resource."
"I don''t think anybody knows what sustainable harvesting levels are," Nichols counters. "To understand an ecologically sound balance you need to have thoughtful and understanding data, and we''re missing that data. So we''re missing a strong management plan. The state typically hasn''t acted until there''s a crisis. And that''s a dangerous approach to sustainability."
When asked about sustainability, Ebert shrugs. "I feel like that''s what our farm is doing already."
For another view on kelp, see American Kelp
Additional reporting by Sue Fishkoff.