BUY FINS, PLANT KELP
Last year I took a surf and spearfishing trip to explore a stretch of coastline in southern Oregon. While waiting for an upcoming swell to show up I decided to get underwater and see about shooting a few fish for dinner. I suited up on the rocks at the water’s edge surrounded by towering, forested mountains scarred from an age-old boundary struggle with its violent and demanding neighbor. While I was enjoying that feeling of insignificance and respect that often accompanies such a setting, a juvenile grey whale breached a few yards from where I was standing. This quickly conjured another familiar feeling. A complex cocktail of fear, excitement, anticipation and wonder that shows up before submerging myself in the alien and forbidden world of saltwater. A vast environment where whales are comfortable and I am not, no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise.
After spending a few minutes watching the whale do whale stuff, I pulled on my fins and mask and slipped into the water. What I noticed first as I oriented myself was that the blanket of dark water below me had a purple hue. Visibility was maybe ten feet which, in my experience, is average for an Oregon shore dive. As I relaxed on the surface preparing to dive into the abyss below me I noticed how different the water color was from the Northern Oregon waters I was used to. Eventually I took a breath and kicked towards the bottom. After a few kicks I punched through what must have been a sediment layer and visibility opened up to reveal a very bleak and intense landscape: thousands, tens of thousands, millions? of baseball-sized, purple sea urchins blanketed nearly every surface. I slowed my decent, not wanting to spend the rest of the trip pulling urchin spines out of my body. As I absorbed the view, it was clear that I had dove into what was at one time a kelp forest. But instead of the dense, lush and ecologically diverse environment of a healthy kelp forest there was just the remaining kelp stumps engulfed in urchins consuming the last of the leafless stalks.
I have since learned after doing a bit of research that kelp is one of the fastest growing organisms on earth, growing up to two feet per day and it provides food and habitat to over 700 species of algae, invertebrates and fish. Research is also suggesting that coastal ecosystems such as kelp forests sequester up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests. Unfortunately, since the 1920s California has lost 90% of its kelp beds due to several contributing factors and Oregon is not far behind. The most recent and aggressive of these factors is the population explosion of the purple sea urchin. I know now that what I saw that day diving is called an “urchin barren.” A recent count found 350 million purple sea urchins on one Oregon reef alone — a more than 10,000% increase since 2014. Urchins will literally eat all plant matter in the vicinity, then go into a dormant “starvation mode” for several years making kelp growth impossible.
How did this happen? The factors that led to this population increase are complex but it goes something like this: ocean temperatures have increased leading to the decreased immunity of starfish, sea urchins’ primary predator, leaving them susceptible to sea star wasting disease. This has caused so many starfish on the Pacific Coast to die that scientists are calling it the “largest disease epidemic ever observed in wild marine animals.” Dramatic decrease in predator pressure plus abundant food source equals unmanaged population growth.
In an effort to restore vital kelp forests we have partnered with Sustainable Surf’s new project, SeaTrees, an ocean-health non-profit with a mission to provide financial support to “regenerative” projects that protect and restore critical ocean ecosystems such as mangrove forests, kelp forests, coral reefs, seagrass and “ridge to reef watershed conservation.”
Starting in January 2020, for every fin purchased through the Pushfins website we will fund the planting of a kelp tree. Buy fins, plant kelp, pretty simple.
Click here to learn more about SeaTrees.
I am also committed to the small step of wearing a hammer on my dive belt and crushing a few urchins on every dive as well as adding them to my diet. A drop in the bucket for sure, but if a drop is what I can offer, then a drop is what I’ll give.
Thanks for reading and if you have any questions feel free to give a shout at Christian@pushfins.com.