MEADOWDALE — When bull kelp washes ashore in the fall, it’s almost too tempting for any kid to leave alone. It provides a ready-made whip or, if cut right, a natural wind instrument.
The slick, greenish-brown plant with a bulbous end is such a feature of the beach landscape that it’s easy to take for granted. Yet little is known about its presence in the waters of north Puget Sound.
Where does it grow? Is it growing back in the same places after it dies off each fall? Is it thriving or declining?
Bull kelp has disappeared in parts of south and central Puget Sound, but the situation farther north is unclear.
With those thoughts in mind, volunteers from Snohomish County’s Marine Resources Committee paddled out in kayaks for several days in mid-July. They left from beaches in Edmonds, Meadowdale and Mukilteo to perform a first-of-its-kind survey, in collaboration with other communities around the Sound.
“I see this as a project to more clearly identify where the kelp beds are and to characterize them,” said Lincoln Loehr, a volunteer leading the survey in Snohomish County.
Other groups are helping conduct pilot surveys in Island, Jefferson and Whatcom counties. The work is expected to serve as a template to monitor kelp over time. The information should benefit the work of kelp experts in Washington and British Columbia.
The Northwest Straits Commission launched the effort. Headquartered in Padilla Bay, the federally funded commission advises and funds the marine resources committees in Snohomish County and six other counties. It provided equipment for the kelp survey, while an affiliated nonprofit paid for insurance.
“All of the monitoring is being done by volunteers,” said Caroline Gibson, marine program manager for the Straits Commission. “The hope is that … we can monitor kelp populations over time very inexpensively.”
Volunteers are using a protocol the commission created last year.
“Ultimately, this is something that any kayaker or any volunteer could get involved in,” Gibson said.
On three of the four recent survey trips, Loehr was accompanied by Kathleen Herrmann, a Snohomish County employee who coordinates the local Marine Resources Committee.
They set out at low tide in kayaks. When they found kelp beds, they would turn on Global Positioning System devices and circle the kelp bed to create an electronic mapping file.
“We went around and did that for all of the kelp beds — except for ones in the Edmonds dive park, where it’s illegal to kayak,” Herrmann said.
They found 14 beds. Some were the size of a few rooms in a house. The largest, north of the Edmonds ferry dock, took Herrmann an hour to circumnavigate. Data suggest it covers about 15 acres.
The volunteers also measured the depth of the water and current speed. They tried to gauge the density of kelp beds by counting bulbs on the surface.
During their work, they saw kelp crabs and anemones. Eagles flew above, while jellyfish and flounder undulated and swam below.
Kelp provides food and shelter for marine habitat, notably for threatened and endangered species of rockfish. In one form or another, nearly all marine life around here relies on it, said Tom Mumford, a retired state Department of Natural Resources scientist advising the kelp survey.
“There are a lot of plants and animals that live in the kelp beds that don’t live anywhere else,” Mumford said.
Even so, kelp has been studied far less than eelgrass, another important piece of the Puget Sound ecosystem.
Mumford has a doctorate in phycology, the study of seaweed.
Kelp refers to a type of brown algae. Other varieties include rockweed and Sargassum weed. About 24 species are found in Washington.
“There are more kinds of kelp here in the state of Washington than anywhere else,” Mumford said.
Bull kelp — Nereocystis luetkeana — is easy to spot from boats, because of the distinctive bulbs visible from the surface. That made it a natural choice for the survey.
Below the water, the bulbs attach to a stalk, known as a stipe. A lower part, called a holdfast, latches to the sea floor.
In Puget Sound, bull kelp typically reaches one to 10 meters, but can grow much longer on the coast, Mumford said.
It occupies the “photic zone,” waters that are shallow enough for light to reach the sea floor.
Its range extends from Kodiak Island, Alaska, down to Santa Barbara, California.
Kelp starts life as a spore, then takes off.
“Those things will grow a foot a day in the springtime,” Mumford said.
It reproduces over the summer, then washes away in the fall. The cycle starts over each year, with kelp typically growing back in the same beds.
“It’s an annual plant,” Mumford said.
Over the past few decades, kelp beds have disappeared in the south Puget Sound. It’s happening in parts of the central Sound as well. Experts aren’t sure why. It’s also unclear how the situation compares in north Puget Sound.
“That’s the whole reason this kelp survey is taking on a sense of urgency,” Mumford said.
By heading up the Snohomish County survey, Loehr hopes he’s doing his part.
“The scientists who are out there are doing incredible work,” he said. “Citizen science can add to it.”