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University of Victoria, coastal First Nations aiming to restore kelp forests

Kelp ecosystems promote biodiversity, emissions reductions and improved water quality
Rockfish swim in a kelp forest. A partnership involving the University of Victoria and Vancouver Island First Nations is hoping to create a framework for how to restore damaged kelp forests.

A partnership is trying to regrow cold-water-loving kelp forests that have been impacted by climate change causing ocean temperatures to rise. 

University of Victoria (UVic) researchers have teamed up with coastal First Nations from B.C. and several other groups to create a recovery road-map for kelp forests. Those ecosystems, researchers say, have been decimated by ocean heat waves and over-grazing by sea urchins. The partnership also aims to develop science that will inform large-scale kelp reforestation efforts. 

Kelp forests support coastal biodiversity, reduce carbon emissions and improve water quality, according to a UVic news release. 

Julia Baum, a UVic professor of ocean ecology and global change, said kelp restoration is still in its infancy and there's no set formula on how to do it. 

"We are focusing on assessing where kelp have vanished along B.C.’s coastline and testing new methods to restore those lost kelp forests," Baum said in the news release. "We believe there’s a huge amount of potential here to do something good for the climate, for biodiversity and for coastal peoples who rely on these ecosystems."

Researchers have been growing kelp in nurseries and have planted it in different locations off of Barkley Sound – located along Vancouver Island's west coast – and off of Hornby Island. They're studying how different species grow, tolerate temperatures and how the plants secure themselves to rocks. 

Around half a dozen students from Baum's lab who are involved in the kelp project are conducting research and field work at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, which is located near Barkley Sound. Another two kelp nurseries are in the process of being installed at Bamfield.

Sean Rogers, the science centre's director, said in the release that the team of researchers is also developing a kelp "glue" to prevent new kelp plantings from being washed away. This summer will also see researchers test out growing baby kelp in cages so that sea urchins can't eat the plants. 

The project is in its second of four years and is being funded with about $3.7 million from the federal government's Aquatic Ecosystems Restoration Fund. 

Rogers said that even if the project doesn't achieve reforestation in four years, it will advance knowledge on how to do it and create a framework for kelp recovery that's currently lacking. 

The project includes Vancouver Island's Huu-ay-aht First Nation, along with other coastal Indigenous communities. Connie Crocker, the project's First Nations liaison, has been working to integrate those communities' knowledge and needs into the work. 

As people are concerned about the oceans and climate change, Crocker says the road-map to kelp recovery is through awareness. 

"If only people knew about kelp decline, we could make some headway."