Warming waters, sea urchins are decimating kelp forests

Warming waters, sea urchins are decimating kelp forests

©  Jackie Hildering, The Marine Detective

Warming waters, sea urchins are decimating kelp forests

By Gavin MacRae

Climate change, in tandem with a teeming sea urchin population, is killing bull kelp forests in the Salish Sea. To stem losses that already have kelp at historic lows in the Central Strait of Georgia, researchers are searching for the most heat-resistant kelp populations, and working to perfect a method of reintroducing the plants.

Increasingly, spiking summer water temperatures near the ocean’s surface are stunting bull kelp’s dandelion-like reproductive capacity. The adult plants release far fewer spores when water temperatures sit above the mid-teens. When temperatures stall above 18ºC, the plants disintegrate and die.

“The [high] temperature either ends the life of the kelp plant, or it shortens its reproductive season, those are the two options,” said Bill Heath, biologist and program director for the Comox Valley’s Project Watershed.

This article reprinted as a joint venture with Watershed Sentinel Magazine

As if things weren’t tough enough for the plants, sea urchins are also munching through kelp forests, unchecked by starfish, their natural predator. Urchin numbers exploded after a sweeping die-off of starfish in 2013, from California to Alaska, caused by a viral wasting disease (which is also suspected to be magnified by rising water temperatures). The one-two punch of warm water and hungry urchins razed kelp forests along the California coast. Across the Pacific, similar circumstances have decimated kelp forests in Tasmania.

Kelp forests are pivotal to the marine ecosystem, providing habitat, food, and shelter for a diverse spectrum of marine life. When kelp forests die, declines in salmon, rockfish, and invertebrates follow.

Some kelp forests are proving more resilient to warming ocean waters (including one kelp forest right in Vancouver harbour). Kelp beds are also persisting in areas of the North and South Strait of Georgia, where cooler, deeper water mixes with surface water in the water column.

Researchers from Project Watershed and Simon Fraser University are working to re-establish bull kelp in the Salish Sea. The project includes a host of other partners and is funded by the Pacific Salmon Foundation and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Looking for heat-resistant varieties

Braeden Schiltroth, a researcher at SFU, is working to find out why some kelp forests are better able to cope with the heat, and to identify the most heat-resistant populations.

Schiltroth’s research focuses on the early stages of the kelp’s life cycle. In kelp reproduction, the adult plant produces spores, which germinate to become a microscopic intermediary generation called gametophytes. The gametophytes produce sperm or eggs, which in turn unite to form the infant sporophyte, that will grow to become the adult plant.

Schiltroth found spore germination dropped by half above 17º, and at 20º there was complete spore death. “We do see these temperatures at some of our hot sites,” said Schiltroth, “and it’s happening relatively quickly.”

While Schiltroth is finding the hardiest kelp population, Heath is studying how to re-establish the kelp.

Spores are first collected from patches called sori on the kelp’s blades (equivalent to leaves). The spores are cultured through to the sporophyte stage, and then allowed to settle onto spools of twine and root themselves. At a test site off of Hornby Island, Heath and his team (who are also his daughter and son-in-law – kelp runs in the family) wrap the twine around larger ropes, which are fastened underwater in a grid formation. The maturing plants eventually anchor themselves to the thicker rope, and grow to become the familiar buoyant adults.

If ocean waters keep warming … Well, things get even more dicey.”

Heath is also working on getting the kelp on the seeding ropes to recruit back to the ocean floor. One problem is that urchins are scarfing the gametophytes as soon as they hit the seabed. To give the kelp a hand, Heath is experimenting with an underwater pen to keep the urchins at bay until the gametophytes can unite, form sporophytes, and root.

Schiltroth said the kelp declines are complex. “It’s what makes the research fairly difficult to do, that there are so many factors. Definitely the urchin grazing, sea star wasting has got those numbers up. Back in 2016 we had this thing called the blob, which was essentially this warm mass of ocean currents that came towards our coast, and that created a lot of warming in our area. So all these things created this perfect storm, and as you can see in California – 90% decreases in kelp in a lot of areas. We’re really starting to see a lot of the same trends, particularly on the inner Salish Sea.”

If ocean waters keep warming, Heath and Schiltroth may only be buying time. “I think we can do something by selecting thermally resistant strains of bull kelp that can withstand the kinds of summers that we’re having.” said Heath. “That’s summers as they are now. What happens if it gets even warmer? Well, things get even more dicey.”

Still, there are some reasons for optimism. Kelp is naturally prolific, and given a weather window of cooler water, Schiltroth found the plants are able to get back on track and complete their reproductive cycle. Heath also has partnering research groups eager to launch new reseeding sites.

The long-term plan is to reintroduce more heat-resistant kelp forests to a string of test sites along the Strait of Georgia. If a half-dozen or more sites could be established, Heath thinks the effect could be significant. Give the kelp a leg up, and, Heath said, “the plants can do the rest quite well.”

Gavin MacRae writes for the Watershed Sentinel






This article from the University of Victoria Community Mapping Collaboratory helps to explain this unique salt-water plant.

Common Names: ribbon kelp, mermaids bladder.

First nations names: In Haida, Bull Kelp is called ‘Ihqyaama’ . Hul’qumi’num: Q’am’


When bull kelp is alive it can be found floating offshore with the bulbs dipping in and out of the waves. When bull kelp is dead, it can be found on the beaches along the Pacific Coast, especially after storms or in the winter after it dies off for the year. It ranges in colour from green to brownish-yellow. It is identified by the bulb which acts as a float at the surface of the water and is attached to a long stalk (stipe) which attached on the ocean floor.

Ethnobotanical Uses

Bull kelp was used by indigenous peoples for their fishing gear and storage containers. The bulb and parts of the stipe were used to steam bend branches of fir for their bentwood halibut hooks. The solid part of the stem was used for fish lines after being soaked in fresh water, stretched and twisted for extra strength. Several could be joined together with a fisherman’s knot to make a longer line. As well, nets, ropes, harpoon lines and anchor lines were also made from Bull kelp.

Commercial companies use kelp extracts as thickener in products such as salad dressing, ice cream, hand lotion and paint. The bull kelp species is a part of the Great Brown Seaweeds which are the highest of seaweeds in iodine content, and their fiber is only partially digestible. However, their extracts, such as fucoidan, fucan, laminarin, lignanas, and alginates are exceptionally valuable in both food and medicine for its high vitamin and mineral content.


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The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

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The growing pains of updating BC’s water law

By Gavin MacRae

Watershed Sentinel writer Gavin MacRae examines how well the new Water Sustainability Act is working in the context of a water bottling controversy in Merville


BC’s original Water Act was a relic, drafted when Vancouver was still a fledgling city and before Canada’s first airplane took to the skies. It would govern water use in the province for over a century, until in 2016, a long overdue replacement arrived: the Water Sustainability Act (WSA). Conceived after a long period of public consultation, the WSA aims to “address the new challenges of the 21st century, including climate change, population growth and increasing pressure on water resources.”

This may come as surprise to residents of the community of Merville, on Vancouver Island. The hamlet has been roiling since residents learned of a commercial groundwater licence, granted by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development (FLNRORD), to sell water from an aquifer beneath Merville.

The licence was approved without public notification, and against the wishes of K’omoks First Nation and the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD). Amid public outcry over the ministry decision, the plan was halted when the CVRD denied a rezoning application by the well licence holder that would have allowed the proposed bottling business to process the water at the well site.

Opponents of the proposed business are concerned increased traffic and noise will ruin the bucolic ambiance of the small community, and worry about the effect the business could have on their own wells. Some residents said the business would set a precedent of for-profit extraction of a common resource, squandering precious groundwater when water scarcity from climate change looms.

An unassuming rural lot with a mobile home and a few scattered outbuildings is the epicentre of the controversy

Bruce Gibbons lives down the road from the proposed bottled water business, and is a vocal critic. He said residents were unaware of the licence until the rezoning decision came before the CVRD. After finding out about the well licence “through the neighbourhood grapevine,” Gibbons rallied neighbours to attend the zoning meeting. “We packed the CVRD board room and overflowed into the parking lot, on a Monday morning,” he said.

Since then, Gibbons has launched an unsuccessful appeal against the well licence, formed an advocacy group called the Merville Water Guardians, and had an independent hydro-geology consultant review the technical reports underpinning FLNRORD’s decision to approve the well.

The neighbourhood

An unassuming rural lot with a mobile home and a few scattered outbuildings is the epicentre of the controversy. It is the home of married couple Christopher MacKenzie and Regula Heynck, holders of the well licence.

MacKenzie was visibly frustrated talking about his so-far thwarted plans to operate the water business. He said social-media-fuelled fear from well-meaning but misguided activists factored in to his zoning defeat. He also viewed the denied rezoning as a pre-meditated campaign by officials at the regional district. “[The CVRD] came up with a plan to direct us down the wrong garden path, knowing all along we had the right zoning, that we exhausted all our avenues chasing a rezoning application.”

“We’re not the first people to do this,” said MacKenzie, “we’re just the same as everybody else, a young family with a little bit of luck, who have drilled water and want to offer it locally to poorly water-serviced communities.”

The 10,000 litre-per-day draw of well water (roughly equivalent to 10 homes) was negligible, said MacKenzie. “How are we going to drain the aquifer when we’re only allowed to take 10,000 litres, and there’s 34 trillion litres in there?”

In a media release, the K’omoks First Nation came out in opposition to the well licence, describing it as an “insult to our nation and people.” The Nation stated they were in a treaty process, negotiating for groundwater allocations in their traditional territories, and were opposed to the volume and indefinite term of the well licence.

The Nation was also “extremely disappointed” with the province’s failure to meaningfully consult with them. Chief Nicole Rempel said: “The province needs to smarten up, negotiate in good faith and in accordance with [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples]”

Edwin Grieve, Director of Area C of the CVRD, said the licence was issued despite the district informing FLNRORD that the licence ran contrary to their official community plan and regional growth strategy.

MacKenzie said he now plans to apply for a different exception to his current zoning that would allow him to bottle the water on his land. “Not only is it a brand new application, we’re going in with the lawyers, and the [provincial] ombudsman, they’re all behind us.”

Dueling experts

In a document provided by MacKenzie, which he intends to submit to the CVRD for the zoning, a passage attributed to a hydrogeologist retained by Mackenzie read: “The proposed groundwater withdrawal is not a significant stress on the aquifer; no neighbouring wells will be significantly impacted by the proposed groundwater use.”

In contrast, the report by a consultant hydrogeologist commissioned by Bruce Gibbons to critique FLNRORD’s study of the well application was critical on several points. Chiefly, the report cast doubt on FLNRORD’s conclusion that the aquifer to be drilled is “not likely hydraulically connected to surface water,” citing the ministry’s lack of accounting for factors associated with connections between ground and surface water. The report also critically highlighted FLNRORD’s reliance on data from a monitoring well 12km away from the water bottling site, and 18-year-old data.

In the Merville case, FLNRORD has acted within their directive in granting the well license, as prescribed by the WSA. A worker following orders, FLNRORD has no mandate to inform the public of groundwater well applications. To qualify for an appeal of a well license, a complainant must be either an existing well holder or riparian owner (someone who owns waterfront property) whose water would be affected, or own land that would be physically disturbed.

Don’t throw the baby out with the groundwater

Stepping back from the play-by-play of raucous town hall meetings, quashed business plans, and dueling technical reports, the debate in Merville begs the question, how well is the WSA working?

Rosie Simms is a researcher at the University of Victoria’s POLIS project. She described some parts of the WSA as analogous to a promising but unfinished construction project. She said the potential for the WSA to provide “robust protections for fresh water” exists, but “until there’s further follow through, and actual work to get the most important parts of the act implemented and working on the ground, it’s still an incomplete process.”

Simms listed water sustainability plans, water objectives, and environmental flows provisions as tools for improving water governance available in the WSA, but currently underused. “Basically, there’s a whole lot of opportunity, it just needs to land,” she said. Despite that opportunity, there are still holes in the act. “There’s some major gaps. It’s silent on Aboriginal rights and title, which is a significant issue,” she said.

Emma Lui, a water campaigner for the Council of Canadians, said a major omission to the WSA is the recognition of water as a human right. Instead, the WSA relies on a gold-rush era rule called “first in time, first in right” for prioritizing water use. In the case of scarcity, first in time, first in right (mirrored by the phrase “first come, first served”) ignores the use of the water and rewards previously established water licences priority over subsequent licences.

First in time, first in right may have been a sensible principle for prospectors to follow a century ago, but Lui said it no longer makes sense. “When you have a system like first in time, first in right, you’re just not going to be able to prioritize water for communities,” she said.

But first in time, first in right, is not absolute. Simms said community water sustainability plans do have the power to change, cancel, or put conditions on water use for existing licences. During drought conditions, the province can also issue temporary orders to licence holders to reduce or stop flow to protect ecosystems and fish.

Lui said it’s pretty simple why such a dated principle made it into the new legislation. “I think the government was really not wanting to change the system in such a way that could threaten existing industries, like bottled water or fracking. But that’s really what needs to be done. We need to think about where water is being used and how that’s going to be impacting people and communities in the future.”

The Merville case demonstrates clearly that British Columbians are taking the governance of their water seriously. And rightly so, considering what’s at stake. For concerned citizens, water advocates, and commercial bottled water interests, the worst-case scenario is ultimately the same: running dry.

Gavin MacRae is the Watershed Sentinel’s new editorial assistant. He may be reached at editor@watershedsentinel.ca For other stories about environmental issues and their broader social implications go to the Watershed Sentinel website

Photo by George Le Masurier


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