kelp beds

Restoring kelp to Tikapa Moana – the Hauraki Gulf

Photo credit: Paul Caiger

While the Hauraki Gulf is beautiful from the surface, below the waterline the ecosystem is in crisis. Kelp is vital for ocean ecosystems to flourish, creating habitats for marine life and is hugely efficient at fixing carbon. However, many coastlines which were once home to vast forests of kelp, now lie bare, thriving reef ecosystems replaced by kina (sea urchin) barrens.  

In the Hauraki Gulf, scientists say the loss of large snapper and crayfish through over-fishing means kina are now grazing down the kelp beds at an alarming pace, without their natural predators to keep them in check. Areas that were previously dense in kelp are now barren. However, kelp beds can be restored and the flourishing beds within the Goat Island marine reserve are a shining local example.

“In New Zealand, it’s estimated that up to half of the kelp forest on shallow reefs around Hauturu-o-Toi (Little Barrier Island) is now gone. Our research is examining the role of marine protection and restoration in allowing kelp forests to bloom, and their associated marine life to return and flourish,” said Dr Nick Shears. 

Live Ocean is supporting work by Dr Nick Shears from the University of Auckland to understand both the scale of the problem and what happens when the kina are removed from barrens. Does ‘resetting’ the system accelerate the restoration of kelp on a large scale?

These findings could be very significant for new areas of marine protection, where kina removal could significantly accelerate habitat restoration. The research project is also investigating how kelp forests contribute to coastal carbon cycles. The work will help researchers understand the role of kelp forests in climate change mitigation and provides an exciting potential opportunity for quantifying and valuing blue carbon.

“Kelps are extremely efficient at fixing carbon, but our research has demonstrated that only a small proportion of this carbon is stored in kelp forests, with much of it being released back into the ocean.  This research will help us understand the long-term fate of this “lost” carbon and the role of kelp forests in climate change mitigation” says Dr Caitlin Blain. This is vital in order to understand the importance of ocean restoration.

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