New Guidance for Kelp Management Efforts in California

Caitlin Scully

California Sea Grant Extension Fellow Dr. Gina Contolini is lead author on the newly released Giant Kelp and Bull Kelp Enhanced Status Report. 

Northern California’s iconic kelp forests have been in decline for nearly a decade, and the state is grappling with a kelp forest crisis. California Sea Grant Extension Fellow Dr. Gina Contolini worked closely with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to develop a new Enhanced Status Report that will help inform the state’s kelp restoration and management efforts.

In 2020, Dr. Contolini began her two-year California Sea Grant Extension Fellowship with the CDFW Marine Region, which oversees fisheries and habitat management for the entire California coastline. Dr. Contolini is the lead author for the new Enhanced Status Report (ESR) for giant and bull kelp across California. The ESR provides an overview of the species, the fishery, management and restoration, monitoring and Essential Fishery Information, and identifies future management needs for both bull kelp and giant kelp. To develop the report, Dr. Contolini, along with CDFW coauthors Rebecca Flores Miller and James Ray, compiled existing kelp research and performed novel analyses of cutting-edge kelp data from satellite imagery. 

“I’m really proud to be part of California Sea Grant,” said Dr. Contolini. “Their partnerships with state agencies like CDFW allowed me to work with an amazing group of people to develop the Giant Kelp and Bull Kelp Enhanced Status Report. The report is done not a moment too soon. As we deal with the aftermath of kelp forest collapse in northern California, it is essential to lay the groundwork for the future of kelp restoration and management statewide, which is exactly what this Enhanced Status Report does.”

The Giant Kelp and Bull Kelp ESR will help guide CDFW efforts on kelp management and restoration, focus partnerships and research to address information gaps and needs, and directly inform future management of this dwindling habitat. The report was reviewed by kelp experts from state, federal, academic, and non-governmental agencies including California Sea Grant, California Ocean Protection Council, Greater Farallones Association, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, San Diego State University, University of California Santa Cruz, and San Jose State University Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and includes information from California Native American Tribes and commercial kelp harvesters. 

“It has been a great opportunity to work with Dr. Contolini on the Giant Kelp and Bull Kelp ESR. The ESR is an important resource for CDFW and the public and is instrumental as CDFW and California Fish and Game Commission further consider the management of kelp especially in light of changing ocean conditions and recent kelp losses,” said Rebecca Flores Miller of CDFW.

Dr. Contolini’s fellowship represents the interorganizational need for effective communication and management of coastal ecosystems for diverse stakeholders. To support state management efforts for kelp restoration, California Sea Grant expanded one of their training programs, modeled after the successful State Fellowship Program, to offer a two-year extension fellowship for kelp management. CDFW serves as the host and one of the co-mentors for the fellowship, with additional mentorship and coordination provided by California Sea Grant. The fellowship advances interests in kelp restoration for CDFW, California Sea Grant, the Ocean Protection Council, and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries by bridging the organizations and connecting stakeholders to statewide kelp management and restoration efforts.

Kelp forests are a vitally important ecosystem for California’s coastal communities and support hundreds of species including commercially, recreationally, and culturally important fish and invertebrates such as rockfish, California sheephead, spiny lobster, red sea urchin, and red abalone, in addition to supporting its own fishery and cultural traditions. Starting in 2014, a series of stressful oceanographic and ecological phenomena devastated bull kelp forests off Sonoma and Mendocino counties in northern California. Satellite imagery of these offshore waters dating back to 1984 shows the area once covered by kelp canopy dropped by more than 90% from 2013 to 2020. All that remains are small, isolated patches of bull kelp. Fisheries have been impacted and some have collapsed because of this loss of critical habitat, including the recreational abalone fishery valued at $44 million and the commercial red urchin fishery valued at $3 million in 2016. 

In the past, northern California’s kelp forests were able to withstand the pressure of warming events like El Niño. Simultaneously, urchin populations grew dramatically and their primary northern California predator, the sunflower sea star, fell victim to sea star wasting disease. Consequently, the “one-two punch” of an unprecedented warming event combined with the massive increase of kelp-eating purple urchins overwhelmed the system and led to the kelp forest collapse and limited the ability of kelp to recover.

The Kelp ESR is now available on the CDFW California Marine Species Portal.

About California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department) was established in 1870 as the first wildlife conservation agency in the country. Governed by the State Constitution and policies of the Fish and Game Commission, the Department is part of the Executive Branch of California State Government and a department within the Resources Agency. The Director of the Department is responsible for carrying out the mission of the Department in accordance with laws, policies, and regulations of the State and the Fish and Game Commission.

The Mission of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to manage California's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.