Another vital forest at risk: Scientists fear warming water could be killing off Puget Sound's kelp beds

phys.org | 5/15/2019 | Staff
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Dozens of healthy bull kelp off Owen Beach stretched to the surface, trailing a moppish tangle of algae. It looked like overgrown clumps of pad thai had gone out to sunbathe.

Each kelp featured a grenade-shaped bulb, filled with gas to keep it straining toward the sun for photosynthesis. Translucent ribbons that felt like a film negative covered in frog skin dangled with the current.

Forests - State - Department - Natural - Resources

"It creates these underwater forests," said state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) marine ecologist Helen Berry. "Kelp is an ecosystem engineer."

Aboard a DNR research vessel on Thursday with several journalists, Berry pointed into the kelp bed.

Fish - Perch - Thicket - Starfish - Sea

Small fish, likely perch, darted through the underwater thicket. Several starfish curled up on the sea floor. Crabs clung to bull kelp stipes—stems—like sloths to a jungle vine.

But, as the climate warms, this scene is becoming more rare. In portions of Puget Sound, these sunken canopies are vanishing, and scientists fear the consequences to local ecosystems.

Base - Food - Web - Berry - Bull

"It forms the base of the food web," Berry said of bull kelp, from providing corridors of habitat for juvenile salmon to feeding invertebrates. Charismatic species at the top of that web, like orcas, depend on the creatures that depend on bull kelp.

In 2013, Berry and DNR began to study four kelp beds in South Puget Sound. Two—Brisco Point and Devil's Head—are now devoid of the species, she said. Bull kelp canopy near Squaxin Island is down to about a third of its size compared to just six years ago. Only a few dozen individual bull kelp remain in the bed near Fox Island.

Species - Year - Bull - Kelp - Blades

A species that regrows each year, bull kelp typically retains its blades...
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