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Kelp Forests and the need for their Conservation

Kelp Forests and the need for their Conservation


Kelp is a type of blue forest found in coastal and marine ecosystems and provides a habitat for a large diversity of species that inhibit them. While it looks like a plant in appearance, it is a type of algae with over 30 varieties of species formed from red, brown or green algae. The African seas are dominated by two types of kelp; sea bamboo (Ecklonia maxima) and split-fan kelp (Laminaria pallida) which form an underwater canopy that is observable from the shoreline. Sea bamboo reaches an average height of 17m with the split-fan kelp growing for only a few meters.

Kelps are part of a complex ecosystem that buffers and protects coastlines from storms and coastal erosion as a result of ocean swells. Just like surface forests, kelp forests are affected by seasonal changes. They can take damage when hit by heavy storms and other forms of underwater ocean activity which can wear away kelps making underwater forests bare but will grow back with time. Kelps are also important in underwater plant and animal life providing food and shelter to them. Broken and damaged kelp is occasionally washed ashore and collected as tangle and then used as fertilizer.

Kelp forests are valuable for their high efficiency in carbon sequestering and reducing ocean acidification. So much important are they as carbon sinks, that they are more efficient in capturing carbon per acre than surface forests and are estimated to be as productive as tropical rain-forests. They should be preserved in order to bolster our fight against climate change, rising carbon levels and provide checks and balances for a planet that is increasingly becoming warm.

Due to global warming and rising ocean levels, kelp forests have become highly endangered with an estimated 38% of kelp forests coming under decline mostly due to human activities such as ocean pollution and deep sea mining. Efforts by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other development partners have managed to restore some of the forests with 27% of them currently growing and thriving with the Great African Seaforest being the most productive. We should conserve seaforests not just for the sake of humanity and the planet itself, but as to conserve the habitats and breeding grounds of countless sea species.

Animals inhabiting Kelp Forests

Being a complex eco-system, there are a number of animals that inhabit the kelp forests. Some of them such as sea urchins which eat kelp can inhibit the growth and expansion of kelp forests if in large numbers. There are however natural predators for “urchin barrens” as they are commonly called which keep their population under control - otters can easily crack their pointy shell and feed on them. Other animals that habitate the kelp systems include:

Shrimps

Lobsters

Scorpion fish

Brittle stars

Marine snails

Sea lions

Whales

Sharks

Snowy egrets; among others.

The Importance of Kelp Forests

Over the past few years, the commercial value and potential of kelp forests has been recognized as part of the blue economy. Farmers and traders alike have been able to tap into the underwater forestry to realize its benefits such as:

i. Kelp forests as a source of alginic acid - which is an important compound used in the manufacture of cereal, toothpaste, beauty products, animal feed and ice cream.

ii. Being a habitat for fish and other sea animals, the kelp forests empower adjacent communities economically by providing a source of fish, lobster and other important species that can be farmed or fished for economic benefit. Over 500 million people worldwide are dependent on activities along the kelp forests for food and money.

iii. Rockweed has been harvested for use in the manufacture of fertilizers

iv. Kelp forests are a very rich ecosystem and provide a home and food to hundreds of different plant and animal species.

v. The kelp forests protect shores and coastlines from erosion and destruction from powerful ocean waves by absorbing the force of the waves.

 

Threats to Kelp Forests

Kelp forests have been increasingly shrinking over the past few years. Multiple threats and activities along the shoreline and deep seas are mostly to blame for this; we analyzed some of the threats below:

Kelp forests do well in temperate climates and inhabit cold waters.  However, due to climate change and global warming, most of the ocean waters have been getting warmer affecting the growth of kelps and making the existing ones shorter and weaker.

Over-harvesting has also affected kelp forests as some of the species that are predators of plants and animals that feed on kelp are taken off the food chain which destabilizes the balance of the ecosystem. The over harvesting of sea otters have resulted in increased numbers of sea urchins which overgraze on kelp.