Can local efforts save kelp as oceans heat up?

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A global survey of kelp forests shows that some populations are remaining stable or increasing despite climate change, thanks in part to local management of pollution, fishing, and coastal development.

However, an even greater percentage are in decline.

While global factors associated with climate change are generally harming kelp, these effects vary by region depending on species, local conditions, and other sources of stress, researchers say.

As a result, some kelp forests are staying stable or even increasing. This suggests that, despite negative effects of climate change, local management can play a major role in species survival by easing damage from impacts such as fishing, pollution and coastal development.

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“There is a sense that local efforts to protect and recover ecosystems are futile in the face of global environmental change,” says Fiorenza Micheli, professor of marine science and biology at Stanford University.

“Our findings show that local drivers of kelp forest decline can combine with and exacerbate the effects of global drivers, or even outweigh them in some cases. So, local management can be effective in maintaining or recovering these diverse and valuable ecosystems.”

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports that while kelp in 38 percent of the regions analyzed show clear declines, 27 percent show increases and 35 percent show no net change. This is a different story from that of many other species, such as corals and seagrasses, which have seen global declines.

The difference is in part due to the unique capacity of kelp to recover quickly from disturbances. It also likely reflects large regional differences in the drivers of local environmental change.

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Regions that saw declines were often those experiencing multiple local stressors such as fishing and global stressors such as climate change. Kelp increases accompanied stories of successful local management. For example, kelp forest increases off the coast of Vancouver Island and a stretch of Southern California seem due to local efforts to recover populations of previously exploited predators of sea urchins—major kelp consumers—and reductions in local pollution levels.

The study analyzed trends in kelp abundances from 1,138 sites monitored over the past half-century. However, the researchers point out a “noticeable lack” of baseline data in many regions against which to measure change due in large part to variable and unpredictable research funding.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain monitoring of the coastal marine environment, but it is more important than ever that we keep the pulse of marine ecosystems in the face of mounting global and local stress,” Micheli says.

The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis funded the work.

Source: Stanford University