Kelp need help: Paul Allen’s foundation, enviros and entrepreneurs step up to save an essential seaweed

A scuba diver among a bed of kelp in Edmonds, Wash. (Gray McKenna Photo)

Kelp is cool. Some varieties of the ribbony seaweed can grow up to two feet a day. They form “marine skyscrapers” that stretch up to 45 feet from the seafloor to the surface, creating habitat for crabs, fish and sea otters. Bull kelp is an iodine super food. The algae absorb and trap massive amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide.

“We’re trying not to get out over our skis and saying that kelp is going to save the world,” said Travis Bettinson, food scientist with Blue Dot Kitchen, a company producing kelp snack foods. That said, “it’s one great piece in the puzzle and a zero-input food system.”

But like terrestrial woods, these saline forests are struggling in the wake of climate change, pollution and development. In the southern reaches of Washington’s Puget Sound, two-thirds of the bull kelp forests have disappeared.

Now a coalition of supporters is redoubling efforts to study and restore kelp in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The work is bringing together robotics technology, nonprofits, citizen scientists, Tribes, innovative food science and government agencies.

The nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund announced Thursday that it is getting $1.7 million over three years from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation for an expanded monitoring initiative. Allen, the deceased co-founder of Microsoft, was passionate about marine conservation and the funding builds on the foundation’s kelp efforts.

A recent training session on the shores of Camano Island led by Reef Check Foundation for citizen scientist scuba divers who will help with kelp monitoring. (Paul G. Allen Family Foundation Photo)

The program includes:

  • A pilot project to test the use of a swimming robot that can survey the kelp to monitor its condition as well as sample the water quality. The Bay Foundation and Marauder Robotics are part of the effort.
  • Training and deploying a network of local divers to survey the kelp and associated marine life, generating standardized data. The effort is in partnership with Reef Check Foundation and the goal is to train up 134 divers over three years.
  • Expanding a small, existing kelp and water quality monitoring effort, growing it to 14 sites. The network includes researchers from government agencies and Tribal groups.
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Jodie Toft, deputy director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, is excited about the ability to get near- and real-time results from the robotic monitoring. They’ll be setting up a robotics system with cameras and instruments mounted on the seafloor. It will include either a remote or autonomously operating vehicle that can leave the base for surveys.

“The real-time feedback from the robotics system can give you a sense through imagery and data themselves, are we starting to see stress in the kelp forests,” Toft said. If something is amiss, then “what is the action that should be triggered in response to the change that we’re seeing?”

In Southern California, for example, the sea urchin population unexpectedly surged in a location and gobbled up kelp before being detected by conservationists.

In Washington state, the program is looking at locations in Elliott Bay off Seattle or the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the robotic monitoring.

Harbor seals swimming among the kelp in Edmonds, Wash. (Florian Graner Photo)

Other recent kelp-related funding and initiatives include:

  • The Port of Seattle Commission last month approved a $120,000 project led by the Seattle Aquarium to study the urban kelp forests along the shores of Elliott Bay.
  • The Washington State Legislature last year earmarked $1.5 million for kelp-related efforts, and this year it approved legislation to create a plan for kelp and eel grass conservation and restoration.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has provided Puget Sounds Restoration Fund with $590,000 over four years for kelp work.
  • The Nature Conservancy and a group of universities recently launched, a kelp mapping effort focused on California, Oregon and part of Mexico that plans to expand into Washington and beyond.

The good news is kelp can be restored. For three years, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has been growing bull kelp from lines seeded with baby kelp. Kelp’s natural life cycle is to start growing from the seafloor in winter, reach the water’s surface by summer, create spores that are released into the water column, and die back in the fall. The challenge is to establish the algae so they will return on their own without reseeding.

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Bettinson is working with Blue Dot Sea Farms, a Washington-based effort to grow sugar kelp for food production, environmental benefits and scientific research.

Travis Bettinson, Blue Dot Kitchen’s food scientist, with the startup’s signature product: kelp-based Seacharrones. (Blue Dot Kitchen Photo)

Blue Dot Kitchen has created Seacharrones, a crispy, crunchy kelp-based riff on fried-pork charrones. The startup began selling its crisps earlier this year, getting traction at independent groceries, breweries and at Lumen Field for a Sounders match.

Bettinson hopes the snacks will catch on.

“It has this health and environment halo, but it’s not a U.S. ingredient yet,” Bettinson said. “We’re trying to make it something beyond the normal way you see seaweed approached or sold in the specialty aisle and international aisle.”

Based in Bainbridge Island, Blue Dot Kitchen was selected for this year’s Maritime Blue Innovation Accelerator.

The startup sources its seaweed from the local farm as well as suppliers in Alaska and Maine. Kelp is seasonal like other crops and Bettinson partners with food dehydrating facilities in Washington that normally serve produce growers in order to dry and preserve as much kelp as he can.

Hopefully, with the attention and new funding directed toward the disappearing kelp, the seaweed will rebound and Blue Dot Kitchen and marine life will have access to all the kelp that they need.

“I’ve never seen momentum,” Toft said, “like there is for kelp conservation.”

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