On the Northern California coast, researchers are flying drones. They are mapping and monitoring some of the state’s last remaining kelp forests.
In less than a decade, this region has lost more than 90 percent of its kelp. The Golden State was forced to close its $44 million per year red abalone fishery. That has been rough on outdoor sport and tourism.
"We've had a really stable kelp forest ecosystem for the last 100 years," says marine scientist Cynthia Catton.
So what's behind the kelp crisis?
God’s made creatures and nature to depend on each other in complex ways. But in our fallen world, those relationships get out of balance.
Scientists say an explosion of purple sea urchins have devoured bull kelp at an unprecedented rate. Urchin populations spiked after a disease wiped out sea stars, the urchins' main predator. Then also, a marine heat wave made it hard for the kelp to recover.
The problem has expanded beyond California. Oregon researchers are now reporting a 10,000 percent spike in purple urchins over the past five years. Vast swathes of the Pacific Coast have turned into "urchin barrens." Grazing purple urchins blanket seabeds where towering bull kelp once grew.
Now, one California marine lab is running an unusual project. Urchinomics is turning the destructive ocean pests into a seafood delicacy. They are growing sea urchin roe, also known as uni. Urchinomics CEO Brian Takeda says his company is about turning a problem into an opportunity. “We pluck them up and we 'ranch' them and turn them into premium seafood products."
"Not only will [Urchinomics] be providing this new seafood, but we'll also be helping to restore the kelp forests at the same time," says marine scientist Laura Rogers-Bennett. Urchin ranching is just one possible solution to this coastal crisis. But many more are needed to bring back kelp forests and the marine life that depend on them.
(Hundreds of live purple urchins harvested from the Mendocino County coast are seen in container at the Bodega Marine Lab in Bodega Bay, California. AP Photo/Terry Chea))