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Kelp help is on the way

Below the surface of Puget Sound, disappearing kelp forests and eelgrass beds are threatening the stability of dependent species. The shrinking population is now drawing the attention of lawmakers, with a variety of approaches encouraging restoration of the building block of this aquatic ecosystem.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Inslee earlier this year will provide the Department of Natural Resources with funding to create a plan to conserve 10,000 acres of kelp and eelgrass habitats by 2040. The department will work with partners and tribal nations to identify and prioritize areas in greatest need of conservation or restoration.

“It’s no secret that Washington is home to the most beautiful natural environment in the country, but our ecosystems are facing an existential crisis at every level,” the bill’s prime sponsor Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, said.

Additionally, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz announced the creation of the state’s first Kelp and Eelgrass Protection Zone off the shore of Everett last month. Over 2,000 acres of tideland near the mouth of the Snohomish River will be protected from development for the next 50 years.

“We are taking unprecedented action to protect kelp forests and eelgrass meadows that remain and restore areas where they can be reintroduced,” she said.

The announcement followed the release of Franz’s Watershed Resilience Action Plan which maps out a 10-year timeline for “tree to sea” restoration of salmon habitat in the Snohomish River watershed.

The aquatic plants play a key role in the food web by feeding small fish which in turn feed the marine mammals and larger fish, including the state’s iconic salmon and southern Orca populations.

Additionally, they provide shelter for aquatic life and create the migratory corridors salmon need to navigate their sea to home river journeys.

“Our kelp and eelgrass are the breadbasket of the Salish Sea,” Franz said.

The Puget Sound is one of the most diversified homes for kelp in the world, with 22 varieties recorded. The most widely spotted and best studied kelp is classified as “canopy,” which floats while strands attach themselves to underwater rock.

The majority of the state’s kelp population resides along the Pacific coast and along the western half of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Department of Natural Resources estimates Bull Kelp in this region has declined by more than 80% in the last 150 years. Additionally, mapping by the Samish Indian Nation revealed an estimated loss of 36% in Bull kelp forest canopy overall from 2006 to 2016 around the San Juan Islands.

Definite causes for the shrinking population have not been determined by scientists, but warming water is believed to be a contributing factor. Puget Sound’s temperature varies, depending on location and season, but ranges in summer from 53 to 56 degrees. Any warming that occurs will affect the health of kelp beds. Kelp does not do well in water with temperatures more than 62 degrees.

The new legislation will build upon the existing 2020 regional kelp recovery plan and the 2015 regional eelgrass recovery plan established by the state’s department of natural resources.

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