Oregon kelp diver
Oregon kelp diver Oregon kelp diver © Oregon Department Fish & Wildlife

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TNC Oregon to Map Kelp Forests as Purple Urchin Populations Explode

Studying kelp at marine reserves will inform conservation strategies for this threatened habitat.

Portland, OR

Recent population explosions of purple sea urchins have decimated kelp forests in Northern California and have moved their way north to Southern Oregon, negatively impacting the ecosystem and important species such as abalone. A recent count found 350 million purple sea urchins on one Oregon reef alone — that’s an increase of more than 10,000% in just five years. The extent of the impact on fish species—particularly juvenile fish that tend to seek safe harbor in kelp beds—is largely unknown.

“Coastal kelp forests are critical habitat for numerous species and the health of the ecosystem in general,” said Dick Vander Schaaf, Associate Director of Marine Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. “The purple urchin invasion could devastate this habitat within a short period of time.”   

In an attempt to better understand the role of kelp and seagrass habitats in the life cycle of fish, The Nature Conservancy will map and assess kelp and seagrass habitat at Otter Rock Marine Reserve and Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve with funding from the Pacific Marine & Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership (PMEP). Expanding our knowledge of these habitats will help scientists explore strategies to conserve them and find ways to more easily monitor them in the future.

“It is essential to conduct this mapping project to elevate the importance of kelp and seagrasses as fish habitat in our coastal ocean,” said Dick Vander Schaaf, Associate Director of Marine Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. “We need to better understand exactly what is at stake here so we can work to protect it.”

This project will map seagrass and kelp habitats using monitoring surveys conducted by the Oregon marine reserve program. Researchers will focus on two marine reserve sites and will note the presence of juvenile fishes to help us understand how juvenile fish use these habitats.

This project represents a portion of the on-the-ground conservation work implemented in 2019 under the National Fish Habitat Partnership.  Through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fish and Aquatic Conservation program, over $4 Million was contributed to 83 projects in 34 states.

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 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.