"SAVE OUR KELP! NO KELP, NO FISH, NO OTTERS, NO WILDLIFE, NO DIVERS, NO TOURISTS!" read one placard carried by supporters who rallied the California Fish and Game Commission to curtail kelp harvesting in the Ed F. Ricketts Marine Park near Monterey, California’s historic Cannery Row.
The kelp forest off California’s central coast has been a thicket of controversy for several years. Because the kelp forest is a unique ecological habitat, a popular recreational destination and a harvestable resource, users" interests range widely. Kelp is used commercially in cultured abalone, is employed to provide smooth textures in processed foods, and it is an ingredient in sushi.
In early April, nearly 100 people packed a commission meeting to voice their opinions on a statewide kelp management plan. Scuba divers came in droves with photographers, environmentalists, surfers, business owners and marine scientists. As Chuck Davis says, "People who know and love the Monterey Bay want to get into the trenches and do something about the state of the coastal areas."
Jim Curland of Defenders of Wildlife stressed the role of kelp in the marine ecosystem, explaining how kelp harvesting further threatens the already endangered Southern sea otter. Otters use the kelp forest as foraging and nursing grounds. Without the otters, the urchin population explodes. As algae-eaters, urchins feed on the holdfasts of the kelp, resulting in a sea floor completely devoid of vegetation. Failure to regulate kelp harvesting almost certainly ensures that someday there will be no kelp left to regulate.
Berkley White of the Cannery Row Business Association cited the importance of the kelp forest in terms of tourism dollars. "People come to Monterey to see the sea otters. If the [kelp] canopy isn’t there, the otters aren’t there. Our bottom line is dependent on that."
Speaking for the kelpers was Joe Cavanaugh of Monterey Abalone Company, who denied that the harvesting was taking a serious toll. "People think the kelp forest is being clear-cut," he said. "This is a sustainable resource, and each year it’s being renewed."
The meeting convinced the commission to adopt a new plan that will be in effect for five years. Kelp harvesting will be prohibited throughout the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from April through July. It will also be banned year-round along a portion of Cannery Row.
Mike Chrisman, the commission’s president, reported, "What we’ve got here is a group of very committed individuals. We heard them; we really did." The new plan is a victory for recreational scuba divers who come from all over the world to dive the kelp forests in Monterey. But more importantly, it’s a victory for the environment and ensures that there will be kelp forests in Monterey for years to come.