Kelp Mapping Guidebook

Underwater photo of fish swimming among a kelp forest in California.
Kelp Forest Fish in a kelp forest off the coast of California © Ralph Pace

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Most of us only see kelp when it’s washed up on a beach, where it tends to look slimy and not very impressive. But kelp is one of the great unsung organisms of our oceans. Kelp creates critical, foundational habitats for everything from sea snails and rockfish to sea lions and gray whales—and for humans, kelp is a key ingredient in foods, pharmaceuticals and other products, including fertilizer and even ice cream. It is also of great cultural importance to Indigenous people on the Pacific coast.

But globally, kelp forests are in trouble. Areas of British Columbia have seen 40% of kelp beds lost; in Northern California, as much as 96% of kelp beds have been wiped out.

In recognition of kelp’s vital importance to coastal ecosystems, the Hakai Institute and The Nature Conservancy have launched the first-of-its-kind Kelp Mapping Guidebook to help users from all backgrounds apply advanced mapping techniques to monitor kelp resources in their respective regions.

The Kelp Mapping Guidebook, developed by the International Kelp Mappers Community of Practice, is an endorsed United Nations Ocean Decade Action and combines the knowledge of 50 topical experts from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula. Reliably mapping and monitoring their presence, abundance and distribution is important for decision-makers administering restoration and conservation policies.

Remote sensing and mapping of kelp canopies is historically a complex field requiring technical expertise and advanced technology, such as drones and satellites. The Kelp Mapping Guidebook outlines tangible steps for practitioners to determine the appropriate tools to select based on the distribution of kelp in a specific area.

“Mapping and monitoring changes in canopy-forming kelps can inform strategic management and conservation of kelp forest ecosystems,” says Vienna Saccomanno, senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy and one of the lead scientists on this project. “This turn-key guide is designed to help managers track kelp resources using state-of-the-art science for present and future generations.”

The methods, tools and datasets developed from this guidebook are transferable to a variety of other coastal monitoring and mapping projects that may also require unique regional considerations. It has been designed to be accessible to community members and researchers new to the field or outside science and academic institutions.

“It is my hope that this guidebook can not only help us better understand kelp dynamics, and help inform conservation, restoration and management of kelp forests,” says Luba Reshitnyk, a lead scientist on the project, “but also be publicly accessible and scalable to other projects beyond kelp.”

The Hakai Institute and The Nature Conservancy have more than a decade of experience with kelp mapping and monitoring projects and long-standing relationships with practitioners throughout the Northeast Pacific. This includes kelp aquaculture and kelp conservation groups, and Indigenous guardian and stewardship programs, and are part of a growing international community of practice.

“The United Nations Ocean Decade is all about kick starting the science we need for the ocean we want,” says Rebecca Martone, the executive director of the Ocean Decade Collaborative Center for the Northeast Pacific and a guidebook contributing author. “The Kelp Mapping Project is part of our urgent mandate to accelerate solutions to ocean issues, and we couldn’t be more proud of our partners and collaborators who helped us make it happen.”

The Kelp Mapping Guidebook is now available for distribution, and the lead scientists and advisors of this project will be hosting online webinars, both in English on October 18th and Spanish in November, to provide guidance on the best practices and application of this guide.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.