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Sea No Evil

[whitespace] kelp harvester
George Sakkestad

Net Income: While harvesters like Dave Ebert of U.S. Abalone see kelp cutting as completely sustainable, some local environmentalists believe regulations are vague and unenforced.

Conflicting views on ecology and ocean management tangle approaches to regulating kelp harvesting in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary

By Mary Spicuzza

BREAKING WAVES BUOY the tiny metal boat as it pushes from the mouth of the Santa Cruz Harbor into the open ocean. A moist, salty haze hangs in the morning air, yet visibility is good as we drift into a kelp bed just off Pleasure Point. A sea otter resting on its weedy raft cracks open breakfast. A sea lion spies the approaching boat and quickly vanishes into the kelp forest. The boat sways as U.S. Abalone vice president Dave Ebert and his crew splash wet, slippery whips of kelp over the railings and into waiting nets. The boat fills quickly with piles of the long brown fronds.

An hour or so later, the boat loaded, its revving motor pulls the small craft away from the bed. "I don't exactly see a path of destruction out here, do you?" asks Ebert with a smile.

However, many members of the local environmental community do see a tangled mass of trouble, complicated by ocean resource mismanagement and a crisis-oriented approach to habitat preservation. They disagree with Department of Fish and Game experts and harvesters like Ebert, arguing that effects we can't see or understand still threaten the ocean's kelp forest ecosystem.

These activists are becoming increasingly concerned that California's aquaculture boom and its harvesting activities bring with them hidden costs--namely, kelp forest depletion in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The debate over kelp management comes at a propitious moment, as specialists and politicians from across the country gather in Monterey this weekend for the National Ocean Conference celebrating 1998 as Year of the Ocean.

Bad Time Stories

SAVE OUR SHORES Executive Director Vicki Nichols says the nonprofit's hotlines are now flooded with questions and complaints about kelp harvesting in the sanctuary. Nichols has difficulty reassuring callers, because she sees the Fish and Game Commission's kelp harvesting regulations as vague and unenforced. (The state Fish and Game Commission promulgates regulations, while the Department of Fish and Game enforces them.)

Nichols cites 1996 as a critical year for a rising tide of concern over kelp harvesting within the sanctuary. That winter highly visible kelp harvesters contracted by Pacific Mariculture, Inc., a Davenport-based abalone farm, sent Monterey city officials, kayakers, divers and professionals in the tourism industry into a tailspin. Dining tourists' mouths--some still savoring the taste of tender abalone--dropped open as they watched from restaurant bay windows to see beloved fuzzy otters flee heavily harvested beds. Professional divers taking visitors to explore the kelp forests could find only traces of it.

Kayakers, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, various abalone farmers who use the kelp and local politicians held meetings and concluded that kelp harvesters should police themselves to avoid stripping the beds. Nevertheless, concerned groups say overharvesting continues.

"There's still a lack of clear regulations," says Nichols, surveying the Santa Cruz Harbor coastline. In 1997, Save Our Shores and Friends of the Sea Otter wrote to the Department of Fish and Game, asking for protection against kelp overharvesting. The department responded that it didn't have the funds and did not think it was a priority to review existing regulations.

"From an ecological perspective, kelp is crucial to the food chain," says Nichols. "The Fish and Game Commission thinks there's no problem. They say kelp grows so fast it's not a concern. I'd love to believe that, but I don't think anybody truly knows the sustainable levels of harvesting. There's a lack of clear management plans."

Really Good Weed

FEW SCIENTISTS would argue with the belief that kelp is an integral player in the marine ecosystem. In 1860, Darwin praised the weed, saying, "If in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species would perish as would here from the destruction of kelp."

There are two species of giant kelp, known in the scientific community as macrocystis pyrifera and macrocystis intergrifolia. Both are in many ways wonder plants. They grow in the temperate oceans of the northern and southern hemispheres but tend to favor the coast stretching from Baja California to San Mateo County. In optimal conditions, giant kelp can grow up to a meter a day--making it the fastest-growing plant on the planet. These swaying forests create a unique habitat that provides food and shelter to nearly 800 species, according to a 1992 California Sea Grant publication. With a root-like holdfast, giant kelp attaches to a rocky substrate and uses all of its surfaces to absorb nutrients from the water as it grows. Kelp fronds can reach up to 150 feet long, and each huge plant can develop up to 100 fronds.

Kelp thrives in cool and calm waters, making El Niño hell on the plants. This year violent storms and raised water temperatures devastated beds.

"Kelp dies back naturally during winter months," UCSC professor of biology Peter Raimondi explains. "But in both 1982 and this year, rough waters can rip out a plant's holdfast and use that plant to thrash the surrounding bed."

Yet kelp is hardly a fragile flower. "Kelp can sustain heavy harvesting, much heavier than any terrestrial plant," says sanctuary superintendent Bill Douros.

Some studies indicate harvesting the upper layer of the canopy can be beneficial to kelp by preventing plants from growing top-heavy and becoming uprooted. Harvesting advocates also believe trimming allows more sunlight to filter through the water surface, enhancing the diversity of plants living under the forest canopy.

Save Our Shores Sanctuary Watch counters that the studies are tainted because they were paid for by the industry, particularly San Diego-based Kelco Corporation, the world's largest kelp-harvesting company.

On the other hand, harvesting critics have little hard evidence to refute Kelco's studies. Many in the scientific community say that studies focus on the health of kelp plants, but little is known about the effect of harvesting on the ecosystem as a whole.

Kelp forest ecology supports ocean life as we know it. Sea otters like to raft in kelp beds, and male otters use it to define territory. Young fish, such as rockfish and surf perch, graze on plankton found in the top several feet of the kelp canopy. Migrating gray whales, especially the young, stick close to kelp beds for protection. Then there are the lower-profile organisms and critters like turban snails, kelp crabs and sea urchins which all feed on kelp, and are in turn fed upon by larger marine animals.

"It's not a disadvantage to the plant to harvest it," says UCSC professor of biology Lynda Goff. "But harvesting is going to impact the community underneath. Anytime you change a community, that's a big deal."

Vicki Nichols
Robert Scheer

Cutthroat Competition

'FROM OUR POINT OF VIEW, harvesters could remove the whole canopy and it wouldn't harm the kelp bed," says Jerry Spratt, associate marine biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. "It's like mowing a lawn. It just grows back."

Every five years Fish and Game reviews its regulations governing kelp harvesting along California's coast, and department officials have no plans to review the rules again until 2000. Current regulations limit the depth of cutting to no more than four feet below the ocean surface, and in some cases harvesting is limited to 50 percent of a kelp bed's canopy.

The commission has designated 55 percent of California's kelp beds for lease to the highest qualified bidder. Another 38 percent are reserved for open harvest by any licensed kelp harvester--and licenses are a mere $100 a pop. Harvest of the remaining 7 percent, according to Fish and Game regs, "has been deemed to be potentially too disruptive to the environment to be allowed."

Seventeen designated kelp beds are found within the boundaries of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Eleven are open to licensed harvesters, and the remaining six beds can be leased. Of the 150,000 to 200,000 tons of kelp harvested off the coast of California each year, only 6,500 tons are harvested within the Monterey Bay Sanctuary each year.

Monterey Bay may be home to the largest national protected marine sanctuary in the country, but its users are engaged in a constant battle for elbow room. Among kelp harvesters, turf wars have erupted only in open beds where, unlike leased spots, territory boundaries are ambiguous.

Lease holders are required to keep track of how much of the forest canopy has been harvested, as they can cut no more than 50 percent at one time. But in open beds, such as most located in Monterey Bay, the actual percentage of canopy harvested in a specific bed is often anybody's guess.

"Harvesters can come back the next day and cut the other half of a bed, leaving an area denuded of kelp," says Rachel Saunders, director of the Pacific Habitat Conservation Program for the Center for Marine Conservation.

"It became clear as we dealt with the short-term overharvesting crisis in 1996 that there was no mechanism for stopping this from taking place because it was--and still is--legal," say Michelle Knight, co-owner of Monterey-based Adventures by the Sea.

Meanwhile, in a letter to state legislators, Monterey County Hospitality Association president Sam Teel said the stripping of the beds displayed "callous disregard for our nearshore environment."

The Department of Fish and Game commonly frames these complaints not as biological concerns for the kelp but as "user conflicts," taking a somewhat dismissive attitude toward critics.

"You can say cutting kelp displaces rockfish, but fish swim and canopies come and go," Spratt says. "Kelp harvesting has been going on for a long time, and it isn't going to harm the kelp beds. It's just a problem for some people." Spratt says complaints are often based on socioeconomic concerns rather than biological threats to the ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Dale Glantz, manager of harvesting and marine resources for Kelco, expresses sympathy for those with "socioeconomic" concerns.

"Tourists like to come and watch sea otters, and kelp beds are popular with otters," says Glantz. "If you remove a canopy right in front of a tourist spot, other people and their businesses are going to be affected."

When asked about solutions, Glantz sighs. "Harvesters really need to start working together." Glantz adds that it's easy for him to speak out about preventing overharvesting of Monterey Bay, as his company's ships rarely wander north of Point Sur.

He traces concerns about overharvesting to a lack of cooperation between competing harvesters.

"When there was only one company, it was easier to know how much of a particular canopy has been harvested," says Glantz.

In looking toward solutions, superintendent Douros pleads for patience. "The sanctuary has looked to harvesters to set limits," says Douros. "We have regulatory power, but we want to give them time to reach their own conclusions."

The Center for Marine Conservation's Saunders believes "it may be time for the government to step in and provide the resources and oversight that have been lacking" in harvesting decisions.

Meanwhile nonharvesting businesses feel left out of the loop. Michelle Knight says her kayaking company depends on a healthy marine ecosystem. "Now if one company decides not to harvest a highly visible bed, another ship just takes its place. It's been a horrible year because of El Niño. The forest is under great biological stress, but they're just cutting anyway."

Down on the Farm

DAVE EBERT, who has a Ph.D. in marine ecology from Moss Landing Marine Lab, enjoys kayaking and diving in his spare time. Standing over the Davenport shoreline farms of U.S. Abalone, Ebert says his aquaculture business is all about protecting resources.

"I love the sea. I grew up on it," says Ebert, whose company's subtitle is "Aquaculture in Harmony with Nature." Ebert runs the four-acre abalone farm with his brother and father, who worked as a Department of Fish and Game marine biologist for decades. While Kelco harvests kelp mainly to extract algin and uses it for high-grade products like pharmaceuticals and food products, Ebert feeds the weeds to his two million growing abalone.

"It's the ab farmers who need healthy kelp. It's the ab farmers who depend on it the most," he says. "Without it, what would I feed my abalone? If somebody came up with an affordable ab chow [a prepared abalone feed currently being developed by Sea Grant], we'd stop harvesting and use it."

He sees harvesting the ocean as an environmentally sound practice, explaining that kelp cutting has gone on since the 1920s. And while wild abalone has been hunted to near extinction, Ebert says he's pioneering sustainable farming practices that protect the environment.

Jim Estes, UCSC professor of marine biology and a nationally renowned sea otter expert, says kelp is crucial to otter populations, but the effects of harvesting on sea mammals just hasn't been studied extensively. Little is also known about why otter populations have dropped over the last several years. "There are a lot of things we don't know about the ocean, and that's part of the problem," says Estes.

"I don't think anybody knows what sustainable harvesting levels are," Nichols says. "To understand an ecologically sound balance you need to have thoughtful and understanding data, and we're missing that data. So we're missing a strong management plan. The state typically hasn't acted until there's a crisis, and that's a dangerous approach to sustainability."

When asked about the upcoming ocean conference, Ebert shrugs. "They're having this conference to talk about sustainability. But I feel like that's what our farm is doing already."

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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