Kelp forest in California captured by Jonathan Bird.
As surfers, we’ve all encountered kelp before. It’s a common sight in popular surfing spots all over the world. Whenever there’s a spot that has a large consistent surf, we see lots of kelp because they thrive in the nutrients stirred up by the constant water movement.
Sometimes, the presence of kelp is beneficial for surfing. For instance, if you’re surfing on the coastlines of North Scotland, according to Magic Seaweed site, kelp can be a handy lifesaver.
That’s because the kelp species there, the Laminaria hyperborean, grows thickly like an underwater mattress, cushioning you when you’re wiped out.
It’s a different story in South Africa where the dominant kelp species, Ecklonia maxima, grows densely right in the surfing zone. This makes paddling towards a wave pretty much strenuous since the thick underwater growth can drag you down. It can even break your fins or stop you dead in the water, particularly when you’re surfing a small wave.
Out here in California though, we’re lucky to have the giant Macrocystis pyrifera species growing in dense underwater forests beyond the breakpoint. That’s because their dense leaves filter out the short-period chop, resulting in a cleaner and smoother wave at the line-up.
But I’m not here to highlight the kelp’s surf-enhancing capabilities. Rather, I wanted to point out that while it may look like just an ordinary algae, it’s actually important because it can help combat the negative effects of climate change on the ocean. Let me count the ways:
It Filters the Ocean
Kelp purifies water by feeding on the waste products released by the marine wildlife.
That’s because fish poop is basically nitrogen and phosphorus. And these two nutrients are also essential for kelp growth. In a healthy marine ecosystem, the kelp functions as cleaners, breaking down the poop so that it doesn’t pollute the ocean.
This function is even more important, especially when it can be used to deal with agricultural waste that is being dumped into our oceans. The wastewater from sewage treatment facilities and run-off from agri-farms contain the same inorganic nutrients. By letting the kelp break these nutrients down, they absorb carbon and release oxygen, keeping the water oxygenated and clean.
Kelp breaks down poop and other organic waste that pollute the ocean.
It Keeps Toxic Algae Populations Low
A positive feedback of letting the kelp metabolize these nutrients is that it outcompetes the microalgae which also feed on these nutrients. These microalgae happen to be the source of the toxic algal blooms. The more nutrients the kelp takes in, the less there are for microalgae to feed. This will limit the occurrence of harmful algae blooms.
Not only that, but studies also suggest that the kelp forest is an ideal home to certain bacteria that effectively combat the microalgae populations. In a preliminary study, researchers have found out that there is some evidence that areas which have thriving populations of seagrass have generally escaped harmful algal blooms. This is attributed to the presence of bacteria in the seagrass which counteracts toxic algal growth.
Who would have thought that this unprepossessing seaweed keeps
toxic algae at bay?
It Slows Down Ocean Acidification
Because they are photosynthetic, kelp use light and carbon dioxide to manufacture their food. This means that in thick kelp forests, they act as carbon sinks, trapping the excess carbon that’s making the water acidic.
This is beneficial especially for organisms which need neutral pH levels to form their shells. By seeking protection under the leaves of kelp, they are able to overcome the effects of acidification, increasing their chances of survival.
Like rainforests, kelp forests trap excess carbon.
Photo by: Huffpost
I want to point out that while it may look like just an ordinary algae, kelp is actually important because it can help combat the negative effects of climate change on the ocean.
— Derek Dodds, Wave Tribe Founder
It Protects Marine Biodiversity
Not only do kelp forests provide shelter from acidification, they also protect organisms from their predators, ensuring that fish stocks remain stable. Kelp forests are a very important ecological niche. Many fish species depend on the kelp to protect their nurseries. Without them, the baby fishes won’t be able to survive to maturity which will impact wild fish stocks.
The thick undergrowth can also provide temporary relief from short term heatwaves. Shallow water dwelling creatures cannot flee to deep water when they’re faced with a rise in water temperature. Instead, they flee to the thick kelp undergrowth where the water temperature levels are stable and conducive for survival.
Many fish species depend on the kelp to protect their nurseries. Photo by: Jonathan Bird's Blue World
It’s a Superfood
Kelp is a nutritionally dense food. It’s loaded with potassium, iron, calcium, fiber, iodine, and other vitamins. It’s for this reason that kelp is being hailed as a miracle food that can solve the global hunger caused by climate change.
Today, more and more fishermen are turning to seaweed agriculture to supplement their income. One particular species, the skinny kelp, is very in demand in the food industry. Not only that, it’s also in demand as a raw material in various skin care, paint, and medical products.
More than these, it’s also a zero-input food source. Kelp cultivation doesn’t destroy the ocean environment. It doesn’t require pesticides, fresh water, or land. It actually improves the quality of ocean water. In fact, researchers have found out that when shellfish are grown under a kelp farm, they develop thicker shells and sweeter, large meat due to the wonder quality of the water environment.
Kelp is loaded with potassium, iron, calcium, fiber, iodine, and other vitamins. Photo by: Greenwave
Threats to Kelp
And yet, worldwide, kelp forests are under attack. As global warming intensifies, so does its effects on the ocean environment and overwhelming the kelp’s capacity to be resilient.
Increased severity of storms due to climate change are uprooting entire plants and breaking away fronds. High sedimentation from the run-off are burying new plant shoots.
Declining sea otter population due to deaths from plastic pollution have allowed sea urchin populations to rise up and devastate kelp forests. Similarly, increasing levels of nutrient pollution are also affecting kelp growth. Meanwhile, as underwater heatwaves occur more frequently and last longer, kelp forests are unable to compensate, resulting in widespread damage.
Protecting the Kelp
To help conserve and protect kelp forests, some scientists and divers are culling the sea urchins in order to give kelp and other algae the chance to grow back. Much like cleaning beaches of litter, these groups sweep the seafloor and remove sea urchins so that the balance in the ecosystem is restored.
A more long-term solution, and one that anyone can participate in, is to reduce one’s environmental footprint. This can be as simple as recycling or keeping our carbon footprint low.
It’s something we all seek to do here at Wave Tribe. More than just a tribe of surfers, we’re also eco-conscious entrepreneurs. We use recycled materials for our stylish, Eco Leash or use sustainable and low-carbon materials like hemp for our best-selling surfboard travel bags.
If you’re a surfer who wants to engage in eco-friendly surfing so that organisms like kelp continue to survive and keep our ocean stable and healthy, consider using surfing gear and products that don’t pollute the environment. Check out our site for more of our stuff.
Essential Wave Tribe Reads
Why Oceans are so Important - Everything You Need to Know
The Ultimate Guide on How To Lower My Carbon Footprint - Surfer's Edition
How to Make your Surfing Travel Plans Eco-Friendly