MENDOCINO COUNTY, CA, 7/8/2022 – One year after he began work removing purple urchin from Noyo Cove under a grant from the Ocean Protection Council, Fort Bragg commercial urchin diver Grant Downie was steering his boat out of the harbor when he spotted something that made him cut the engine.
“I kind of freaked out,” Downie said. He called a restoration director with the Nature Conservancy, one of many partners in a years-long effort toward this moment. “I said, ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at. I’m at the site, and I’m driving over kelp.’ I just started shouting out GPS numbers … ‘I’m right here and there’s kelp. Now I’m here, and there’s kelp. I went out there, and it’s kelp!’”
Only a decade before, this moment would have been unremarkable. The Mendocino coast was known for its massive kelp forests, glittering through its coves and along its shoreline. Bull kelp is foundational to the ecosystem of our shores, not only fostering a habitat on which a complex web of other organisms rely, but also altering the water’s chemical balance and underwater light levels. But between 2014 and 2020, about 96 percent of the bull kelp in Mendocino and Sonoma counties disappeared.
It’s a story of compounding climate disaster that’s growing ever more familiar. Severe marine heat waves and strong El Niño years attributed to global climate change warmed the waters over the past decade, making them extra-hospitable for purple urchin. At the same time, a sea star wasting disease left Mendocino’s shoreline completely devoid of purple sea urchins’ top predator, the sunflower sea star. While bull kelp suffered in the warmer water, overpopulated urchin fed more actively on the kelp. The recreational abalone fishery closed a few years ago, as abalone declined rapidly with less kelp around for them to eat. Red urchin divers found themselves diving deeper for fewer commercially viable urchin, putting their lives at risk and watching their income dwindle as the fishery all but collapsed. A once thriving ecosystem of fish and plant life turned near-dystopian, smothered by purple urchin.
It’s a ship that seemed impossible to turn. And as with so many recent cases of an embattled environment, there may be no way to truly go back – there is no denying that kelp loss has had a catastrophic impact on Mendocino County.
But years of organizing by fishermen, scientists, nonprofits, government agencies, and residents toward restoring this underwater forest has shown – as evidenced by the landmark report this May – that it’s not too late for kelp on the Mendocino coast.
With $617,000 from the Ocean Protection Council in 2020 (including a six-month extension and additional funds following COVID-19 complications), the challenge of how to save the kelp forests turned into several specific questions: whether commercial divers could reduce urchin densities at key points along the coast, what it would take – and cost – to maintain reduced urchin densities, and whether these efforts would ultimately have an impact on the kelp. By June of 2022, with the last cent spent and 45,118 pounds of purple urchins removed, those working to restore kelp on the coast had some answers – and ideas of where to take their work next.
Early findings are promising
The primary goal of the past two years of kelp restoration work was learning what it would take to bring purple urchin densities down to two urchin per square meter, and what impact that urchin reduction would have on kelp regrowth. In May, Dr. Melissa Ward of San Diego State University and representatives from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Ocean Protection Council, the Reef Check Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy announced in a 60-page report that commercial urchin divers removing purple urchin from the seafloor could indeed bring them down to the desired density, and that kelp would have a higher chance of growing back where that happened.
The initial clearing period in a Noyo Cove urchin barren – the term for an area with extremely high numbers of urchin and low numbers of kelp – lasted around four months, with a later maintenance period of another four months. Urchin densities remained low where they had been harvested in Noyo, under two urchin per square meter – while densities at the control site increased from around seven urchin per square meter to more than ten in the total 15-month period.
Bull kelp was completely absent from the restoration site when urchin harvesting began, yet by the summer of 2021, bull kelp could be found in densities of .14 per square meter at the site – around 20 percent of the historic mean density observed at long-term monitoring sites between 2008 and 2012. (At the control site, divers saw no increase in kelp densities).
Urchin clearing began later in 2021 at the other site in Albion Cove; the study there has not concluded. But Reef Check representatives said similar positive trends have been observed. Although the kelp resurgence is still a fraction of the usual density along Mendocino’s coastline, the regrowth is indisputable progress – though longer-term studies and monitoring are needed to see whether this impact will last.
“So yes, [commercial divers] are good at removing urchins,” Reef Check Kelp Restoration Coordinator Morgan Murphy-Cannella said. “They can do it. And kelp did come back. But we don’t know if it’s going to persist or not yet.”
An international nonprofit, Reef Check began work in Mendocino County well before the kelp loss, surveying Marine Protected Areas – of which there are many in Northern California – to see whether MPAs are actually effective in preserving the health of reef systems. Back in 2020, one Reef Check employee – Tristin McHugh, now the Nature Conservancy’s kelp restoration director in Mendocino County – was working here. Since Reef Check was the primary recipient of OPC’s kelp restoration grant funds, Murphy-Cannella and Northern California Survey Coordinator Ian Norton joined the team, monitoring MPAs as well as gathering data at urchin removal sites and coordinating divers.
To put the project into motion, organizers balanced the rhythms of Mendocino County’s workforce, fishing, and ocean conditions with the restoration work’s goals. Critically, Fort Bragg was once a robust area to fish for commercially viable red sea urchin, to be processed and sold to restaurants domestically and overseas. Once worth $3 million, that red sea urchin fishery was hit with a disaster declaration in 2015 after the bull kelp die-off. Downie said when he entered the lottery to get his diving permit more than a decade ago, a new permit was available each time one was retired; now, one permit is available for every 10 retired.
Downie had been able to pay off his student loans and get a house within a few years with the money from his urchin catch; his father had made his living urchin diving for more than 40 years. After the kelp collapse, Downie explained, the quality red urchin could mostly be found offshore and deep underwater – exponentially increasing the risk for divers, while their returns diminished. Many local divers were forced to abandon the profession; he estimates that about seven are currently working out of Fort Bragg, where between 20 and 30 fishermen used to dive for urchin.
That the restoration project utilized the divers’ skills, and responded to this need in the community during a particularly difficult time for the red urchin fishery, was “a godsend,” Downie said. The report also specifically mentioned collaboration with divers in choosing harvesting sites, as the project avoided sites where red sea urchin had previously been found, to not further compromise the fishery.
With the kelp restoration grant money, Reef Check paid 16 divers with valid commercial urchin fishing licenses, access to registered fishing vessels, and experience diving for red urchin along the North coast to harvest hauls of purple urchin. These divers began clocking in four-hour shifts in August of 2020, diving for urchin at Noyo Cove and Albion Cove. Divers would make $500 per day in Noyo, or $700 per day in Albion; vessel operators (who could also be divers) would make $600 per day in Noyo, or $925 per day in Albion.
“Being able to put a wetsuit on and get a paycheck – that means a lot to these guys,” Downie said.
Their expertise in the highly specialized field was also invaluable to the restoration effort. The restoration report summarized that, in all likelihood, urchin removals like this could be most effective only in areas with an established red urchin fleet, at locations close to fishing ports, and at locations where maintaining low urchin densities would be feasible. The project’s success relied on Mendocino County’s existing resources and uniquely skilled labor.
Where the work began
May’s report represents a leap forward in understanding what methods of urchin removal can best foster kelp regrowth. But work under the OPC grant wasn’t the beginning of urchin removal here – some North Coast residents took matters into their own hands back in 2018.
That year, Joshua Russo, president of a recreational diving nonprofit called the Waterman’s Alliance, lobbied the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to raise the recreational limit on purple urchin diving to 20 gallons – and later, to 40 gallons. He then organized massive removal events, where some 100 recreational divers would band together to pull urchin from the water and hand off their catch to 30 or 40 volunteer kayakers, who’d bring them to shore to be studied by the California Fish & Game Commission.
But these efforts, Russo explained, were more designed to raise awareness than to make a real impact for kelp. That year, the Waterman’s Alliance also raised more than $100,000 donated by sport agencies and recreational divers to pay nine commercial urchin boats to harvest purple urchin. (Commercial divers are highly specialized and can pull far more urchin in one dive than those without training).
“Really, the point of the recreational effort was to get the state to take interest in the commercial effort,” Russo explained. “I don’t think anybody believes that recreational divers can change what’s going on, but commercial divers can absolutely make a difference.”
While those divers were pulling urchin from the water, Fort Bragg’s Noyo Center for Marine Science was conducting the first data-gathering operations on the purple urchin hauls, in partnership with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Our first question was, if you take away urchin from an area where there’s a persistent little kelp bed like there was on the shore there, could we spread that spore source over in the new restoration zone?” said Sheila Semans, the Noyo Center’s executive director. “For two years before Reef Check took it over, Noyo did that.”
These efforts modeled ways forward for California’s policymakers and funders, who knew kelp had to be a priority but weren’t sure how to begin addressing the problem.
“Up until 2019, the state was in an issue-tracking posture with regard to kelp,” said Michael Esgro, the Ocean Protection Council’s senior biodiversity program manager and tribal liaison.
In his words, the question had come down to, “What can we actually do?” The Waterman’s Alliance, the Noyo Center, and Mendocino coast urchin divers were proving that the unique fishing infrastructure in place here meant a hand-harvesting approach was worth further testing and investing in.
An assortment of state coordinators, scientists, and several urchin divers finally sat down together. Downie recalls a meeting over pizza, “kicking around the ideas” and figuring out how to pay divers, how to implement more regimented scientific monitoring, and what the scale of the project could be. Throughout the project, an administrative group would continue to meet weekly to check in and work out the kinks.
“I think it really did demonstrate that work like this could be done in Northern California,” McHugh recalled. “Up until this moment, that had not been demonstrated. It was a black box.”
A precedent-setting collaboration
Across the board, those working to restore kelp in Mendocino County praise the cooperation that went into establishing these first years of restoration work.
“One of the coolest outcomes is the partnerships we built,” Esgro said, adding, “I think it’s really unique.”
Diving off the North Coast is not easy; currents can be volatile, coves are rocky, and the ecosystem’s health is in a state of tremendous flux. In their years working under the OPC grant funding, the team found that, for all those challenges, proximity to a harbor and the presence of trained, ready divers was a true asset. For Murphy-Cannella, the many commercial divers who are familiar with these waters are true experts – and it was great to bring them into collaboration on environmental work.
“Something specifically about the kelp restoration project with the commercial divers that I really enjoy is bridging the gap between the commercial industry and the science sector,” she said. “Connecting the two together and working together towards a common goal has been really fun. The commercial divers that have participated on this project have spent thousands and thousands of hours underwater here, and they know this area so well.”
Reef Check also aims to bring even more community partners into scientific monitoring work, whether at MPAs or for more specific restoration projects like this one. They regularly train certified recreational divers to become “citizen scientists,” teaching them to identify dozens of invertebrate and fish species and hosting data collection campouts in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
“Our data’s used everywhere,” Norton said – by universities, the state of California, and NOAA, among others.
Rachel Wynn, an Arcata resident with a passion for diving and a biology degree, was one of several volunteer trainees practicing data collection with the group at Van Damme Beach in June.
“I see the state of the oceans today and the decline that they’re in, and I honestly believe that bad things happen when good people do nothing,” she said, sharing her motivation for volunteering with Reef Check. “I’m tired of complaining about the state of the world and then not actively trying to do anything to fix it.”
Reef Check Restoration Program Director Annie Bauer-Civiello thinks involvement with citizen science can do a lot to engage those who participate, creating a ripple effect beyond providing useful data.
“They’re just regular divers hoping to learn a little bit more about the ocean and be a part of something a little bit bigger in a conservation sense,” she said. “When you actually learn a bit more about what you’re looking at, it does really empower you to make the extra steps and changes that we need in the bigger scheme of things, on a global scale.”
The past two years of restoration work attest to the vitality of involving many stakeholders in working toward an environmental solution.
“Typically, you get situations where the science almost happens in a silo,” McHugh said. “But with this broader partnership between the community, scientists, divers, and the state of California agencies – that’s novel, and the fact that we were able to … write a report together, stay together, and do all of that [work] … I can’t understate how I’m personally very impressed and gratified by the whole experience, and by the willingness of each of the partners to participate in the way that they did.”
In their report, restoration workers on the coast were clear: we won’t have an accurate picture of kelp regrowth without more investment and sustained time.
“More theoretical and field work is needed to define and demonstrate restoration success for Northern California’s bull kelp forests,” the report concluded. (Murphy-Cannella would like to see at least three more years of site monitoring in Noyo and Albion).
But with the knowledge that hand-harvesting every single purple urchin from the seafloor off Mendocino’s coast isn’t possible financially or logistically, attention has turned toward testing other methods for urchin removal and kelp regrowth to potentially use in tandem with hand-harvest.
“Right now we’re in this critical phase of understanding what we can do and developing the tool kit for research managers,” Bauer-Civiello explained. “Once we really understand that, the hope is to expand to different sites.”
The Nature Conservancy has taken over funding and managing restoration work through the end of this year, and is continuing existing restoration projects while also testing out urchin trapping as a technique. Two kelp restoration technicians, Ian Butler and Lauren Nutt, were recently hired to join Murphy-Cannella and Norton and have been monitoring sites along the coast, including four new urchin traps.
“As soon as the traps go in, we go down and we survey them,” Nutt explained. “It’s kind of a radial spoke survey – so we go out north, south, east, and west from the traps – and we look at urchin densities and characterize the bottom substrate of the reef, and then after a 24-hour soak we go out to the same traps and we do the same thing.”
Downie invented these urchin traps, a project that began four years ago. He got the idea when he and his dad, breaking for lunch on their boats, would swipe pieces of drift kelp off their gear; within an hour of it falling to the seafloor, a hungry purple urchin would have descended on the lone piece of kelp.
Joking around, they suggested that the best way to harvest purple urchin might be to lay down a huge fence of kelp and then pull it up a day later, with all the urchin attached. That’s when Downie, after a conversation with Fort Bragg harbormaster Anna Neumann, began to work on plans for an urchin trap in collaboration with state scientists. He lays the traps under a scientific collection permit with California’s Department of Fish and Game, as trapping for urchin is not a legal fishing method under a commercial license.
Downie’s trap is a 34-inch circle, with four bridles and a six-inch drop to ensure urchin don’t roll off the trap. The lack of sharp edges also means less chance of the trap getting stuck or damaged in rocky terrain. (Murphy-Cannella describes it as a bit like the bottom of a crab trap). Downie said keeping the urchin in there is not a problem.
“Once it’s on the food and on the trap, the urchin doesn’t want to get away when the trap starts moving,” he explained. “If anything, it wants to hold on more because it wants to stay with that food.”
The project is in its second phase, being managed by the Nature Conservancy while Reef Check data in the coming months will demonstrate its efficacy in decreasing urchin densities. Bauer-Civiello said Reef Check and the Nature Conservancy also hope to take on a kelp enhancement project with “green gravel,” where kelp seeds mixed with soil would be placed in the ground to be possibly picked up in the water column and quicken the process of kelp regrowth.
While testing new methods, scientists also want to ensure that the lessons learned from kelp restoration here already inform work elsewhere. The Nature Conservancy’s Kelp Restoration Guidebook is a resource toward that end, bringing together lessons in kelp restoration worldwide to inform future approaches to the climate crisis.
“I think it’s critically important at this moment that whatever we know we share outward, not only in our state but outside state lines and in different countries,” McHugh said.
For her part, Semans is working on – among many other projects from the Noyo Center – opening the center’s Slack Tide Cafe, an initiative in Noyo Harbor that will provide the community with both good eats and aquaculture education. She also hopes to build on a collaboration with the company Urchinomics, to keep purple urchin growing after they’re removed from the seafloor and make a commercially viable uni product – and maybe even establish a purple urchin fishery based here.
“The conservation work that Reef Check is doing needs to continue, and we need to keep pulling out as much urchin as we can to learn how to reestablish kelp,” she said. “That’s really important. But if we’re going to make any kind of bigger impact on this coast, yes, we need to figure out how to turn what is essentially a worthless, empty shell into an edible product and make that viable for divers so that we can have economic vitality and bring back a fishery that is essentially limping along right now.” Most of all, she hopes to build capacity within the community to react quickly to large-scale environmental changes, which are unlikely to stop anytime soon.
Born and raised in Fort Bragg, Butler is optimistic about being part of that locally-centered response by working with Reef Check to collect data on the coastline he loves.
“Having grown up here and seeing the decline of kelp with my own eyes, I’m glad to be a part of the group that’s helping with restoration efforts,” he said. “Having the kelp back would be really exciting for me, and I would really appreciate that if –” he stopped, and chose a different word, “– when that happens someday.”
Kate Fishman is a Report For America corps member covering the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Kate’s work here or email [email protected]. TMV maintains editorial control. You can reach her with news tips at [email protected] or at (707) 234-7735.