A Seaweed Journey


Reams of scientific studies are showing that our oceans are warming and acidifying from the vast plumes of fossil carbon that are combusted into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by oceans which turns into carbonic acid. Calcifying organisms like molluscs (oysters, squid), crustaceans (crab, prawns) and corals depend on a more basic pH and the increased acidity interferes with their ability to calcify. In recent years California has suffered catastrophic collapses of many of its commercial fisheries, sardines, dungeness crab, urchin and salmon. Contributing factors are many, indubitably over-fishing is implicated in some cases but scientists are increasingly casting attention towards warming and acidification as key factors.

A pragmatist might beg the question: can our marine ecosystems adapt? As consumers of seafood it behooves us to chew on the insatiable appetite for carbon of one of the fastest growing plants on the planet: kelp. This macro algae an grow 2 feet per day and up to a couple hundred feet in height. Recognized as one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, kelp forests are home to, and food for, a veritable festival of marine life.

More bad news: northern California's kelp forests have been reduced by 93% in the last few years. Where vast swaths of fronds once swayed now march hordes of kelp-devouring sea urchins, areas that biologists sullenly call "urchin barrens". Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, most of the urchins predators have been wiped out. Before the California Gold Rush was the California Fur Rush and sea otters, consummate urchin eaters, were hunted to near extinction. Another prolific predator of urchins, the sea star, have suffered major die-offs since 2013 due to a mysterious disease dubbed "sea star wasting syndrome", which could be caused by warmer waters.

A fascinating footnote to this maritime drama is the story of an unemployed fisherman named Bren Smith who started a lucrative kelp farm in Connecticut. Unlike terrestrial farming his ocean farm is zero input, meaning no fertilizer and no antibiotics are used. Even more striking is that unlike most farming his kelp forest is attracting so many native species, some might even call it restoration.

With these stories in mind, a small group spent a weekend exploring the rocky inter-tidal coastline of Mendocino. Sea vegetables were foraged. Octopi and eels were encountered. Legions of half-starved urchins and abalone scavenged the inter-tidal. And despite the calamities of human industry, the sea still delivered a pulsating throb of life.

- Nik Bertulis