Scientists have developed a technique to restore kelp forests for future generations

A bull kelp forest underwater near Victoria in 2015.Liam Coleman/The Canadian Press

For Liam Coleman, scuba diving in B.C. waters is like taking a weightless walk within the woods.

“It’s a very beautiful, quite special experience to go diving into kelp forests . It’s such as you were walking weightless in space, however it has a forest around you,” said Prof. Coleman.

After getting past the cold water, Prof. Coleman sees schools of fish swimming through the forests, golden sunlight reflecting through the water past the rows of kelp, and infrequently, a seal or sea lion comes by to surprise him.

Essentially the most magical part is life blooms where the kelp forests live, said Prof. Coleman.

The kelp, which might grow 20 to 30 metres tall from the ocean floor, provides food and shelter for hundreds of marine species while absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, climate change and other aspects are chopping away on the undersea forests in some parts of the world.

Prof. Coleman, a post-doctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University’s department of biological sciences, is working with fellow scientists to search out a technique to help save kelp forests for future generations.

He and a team of researchers on the university have developed a cryogenic freezing technique to store seeds of the at-risk bull kelp in a biobank.

The biobank can keep the kelp seeds in perpetuity, allowing kelp farmers, community groups and environmental organizations to access samples and reintroduce them to the oceans in the longer term, Prof. Coleman said.

Sherryl Bisgrove, the project’s lead biologist, said the technique allows researchers to preserve the biodiversity of the kelp forests with little maintenance in case they develop into extinct in the longer term.

“Storing kelp is actually vital because warming temperatures – especially after they are available in the shape of warmth waves like now we have had in recent history – is devastating to a number of the kelp forests,” said Prof. Bisgrove, an assistant professor of biology at Simon Fraser University.

Marine life thrives in kelp forests. They’re used as a habitat, nursery or hunting ground, said Prof. Coleman.

“They promote fisheries output by supporting the event of salmon populations and other economically vital fish. They fix (absorb) large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and subsequently may perhaps have a task to play in combatting climate change in the longer term,” said Prof. Coleman.

However the kelp forests are in decline. Australia has lost as much as 95 per cent of its kelp forests in some areas up to now 80 years. Puget Sound, off Seattle, has also experienced substantial losses of bull kelp over the past century.

The forests are also diminishing in Barkley Hold forth Vancouver Island’s west coast and off Hornby Island, a B.C. Gulf Island, said Prof. Bisgrove.

Coleman said the results of losing kelp forests include shoreline erosion, a decline of water quality and the decrease of the wild salmon population, because the fish depend on kelp forests for survival.

As scientists, Prof. Bisgrove said witnessing what’s happening on the planet creates an urgency to avoid wasting as many kelp species as possible by gathering their seeds while they’re still alive.

“We now have the technique,” said Prof. Bisgrove. “What we’d like to do now’s start collecting the populations which might be still there before they disappear.”

Prof. Bisgrove’s team also sees the biobank as a part of the answer to revive the forests.

“Once we established our collection of various species, we’d give you the chance to produce material to farmers, and community-based groups and other parties which might be fascinated with restoring kelp,” said Prof. Bisgrove, adding that scientists may also use these resources for research.

Although the team has the cryopreservation technique ready, it is usually in search of funding to secure a facility for the biobank.

Prof. Bisgrove said they’re currently storing samples within the university’s lab.

In the event that they have a everlasting facility, they’ll store the kelp species they’ve now and in addition extend the biobank to revive as many other coastal species as possible, similar to seaweeds and seagrasses which might be vital for habitats on the coast, she said.


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