A healthy kelp forest near Redondo beach, Nov. 17, 2022. (Prachi Singh / USC)

A healthy kelp forest near Redondo beach, Nov. 17, 2022. (Prachi Singh / USC)

Tribal access to the ocean can help save the kelp

Coastal Indigenous communities have a special relationship with the ocean, but they need access and support to use that knowledge

By Prachi Singh

There was a time when, along the northern coast of California, members of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians would take a trip to the ocean to go grocery shopping. Nina Hapner, the Director of Environmental Planning with the Indigenous community native to the Sonoma Coast, said the elders in the community often reminisce such stories from the bygone days of their childhood about harvesting kelp, abalone and urchins with their parents. Practices that aren’t being passed down anymore.

This is a generation of people that didn't grow up getting everything out of the ocean, she said.

Thousands of years of history are tied to the harvesting of kelp, a traditional food that holds a significant relationship with the Indigenous peoples along the California coast. Kelp, for them, represents the good health of the ocean and their excursions to the ocean where they would gather it along with other ocean materials for cultural, decorative and ceremonial usages. Being near the ocean and harvesting kelp and other marine life is a way they keep their relationship with their land and water alive along with their traditions and identity. However, difficulties plague this relationship, including the steady decline in the kelp canopy along the coast.

Known as the Sequoias of the Seas or Rainforests of the Oceans, kelp forests are some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. But there has been a persistent and drastic decline in the kelp forests since 2013, a loss of more than 90%.

This video shows the changing kelp canopy along a part of the Northern California coast over the last twenty years. Source: kelpwatch.org

In 2013, sea star wasting disease destroyed a huge amount of multiple species of starfish, the main predators of the sea urchin thus causing their population to rise. The following year, the Blob, an extensive and suffocating mass of warm water associated with global climate change was detected off the Californian coast in tandem with a strong El Niño event. These multiple disruptions occurring around the same time affected the resilience of the kelp forests and resulted in a dramatic loss.

Kelp forests grow best in nutrient-rich, clear waters whose temperatures are between 42–72 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is warmer than that, the kelp does not thrive as well. Today, new patches of warm water continue to be detected.

Over the last decade, both bull kelp and understory kelp health have been very poor. Along the California coast, several factors like extremely high urchin densities in the North and sediment runoff, pollution and overfishing in the South continue to harm the kelp, explained Rietta Hohman, Kelp Restoration Project Manager at Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) and Greater Farallones Association (GFA). In terms of habitat loss, she said, areas north of San Francisco and especially along Sonoma County have suffered the most.

After a proposition by the Greater Farallones Sanctuary Advisory Council was approved, a diverse working group was put together in 2018 for the kelp restoration project that informs sanctuary management. Along with researchers, it included local nonprofits, commercial divers, people from the California Sea Urchin Commission, members of the community and people who are involved in recreational activities and tribal representatives.

The group studied datasets available for kelp on the north coast and put together a list of recommendations for research, restoration, monitoring and community engagement. These recommendations were compiled into the Sonoma-Mendocino Bull Kelp Restoration Plan by GFA. To implement that plan, the restoration project was established.

Loss of access means loss of knowledge

Nina Hapner, Director of Environmental Planning with the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, talks about the sustainable practice of reciprocity.

Photo credit: Nina Hapner

The Kashia Band reclaimed the land north of Salt Point, California, in 2015. Today, the kelp beds are very small. They should be bigger, Hapner said, which is discouraging. According to her, for the people going to the ocean to collect kelp, the resource just isn’t there. “And that's disturbing to us,” she said.

As much as they want to see tribal members to be able to go into the ocean, with the decline in rock and bull kelp and not having much washed up on the shore, the accessibility isn’t easy. “If you're young and you have got young knees or you're not afraid to belay down on a rope, you can get down to some of the beaches,” she said. This restricts the tribe’s ability to manage it.

“For the tribe not having access to the kelp is losing a knowledge base,” Hapner said.

That knowledge base, according to Abreanna Gomes, an Environmental Specialist with the tribe, includes the idea of reciprocity. Kashia people had multiple spots where they gathered kelp, she said, but now there are people, not necessarily from a tribe, who may keep collecting from the same spots multiple times, which is not sustainable.

Techniques of kelp gathering, including which species to harvest and how, are also being lost. There are lessons in gathering resources in accordance with seasons and their availability. According to Hapner, respect and care for oceanic assets is not being passed on like it should.

Heal The Bay in Los Angeles is one of the nonprofits that utilizes tribal practices and knowledge when it comes to conservation methods. The organization collaborates with local coastal Indigenous communities for developing policies regarding Marine Protected Areas and practices a give-and-take relationship with the ocean.

The team with some volunteers takes a boat out from the Redondo beach to harvest kelp as food for the marine life they host in their aquarium under the Santa Monica pier.

“It’s really a shame to see the kelp forests so devastated,” said Michelle Zentgraf, Senior Aquarist at the aquarium. She studied Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was there when the sea urchin population started taking hold off Santa Barbara and moved north and as a diver, she said, she was sometimes asked to swim down and kill the urchins.

Laura Rink, Associate Director of Heal The Bay Aquarium, said that the group harvests every other week as the kelp doesn’t last long once collected. According to her, the abalone are the ones that tell the story of kelp habitat loss since they heavily rely on it. “Because of the loss up and down the coast, the numbers of abalone have greatly dwindled.”

Besides capturing carbon (which helps with climate change), kelp also provides shelter and food for over 1,000 species of animals and plants.

The kelp harvest team ensures it takes only as much needed for the aquarium, base their collections according to seasons and spread out their harvest by sometimes collecting the kelp that washes up on the beaches; some practices that fall in line with Indigenous teachings.

“When you don't regularly practice something, you also lose touch with the cycles of nature,” Hapner said. “Having that tactile sensation of being there and being able to do it, it gives you a bigger understanding of why it's important.”

In San Diego, a movement to reconnect tribal youth with water and their cultural identity is being realized. Marc Chavez, the Founder and Director of Native Like Water, started the Young Native Scholars and InterTribal Youth program in the year 2000 to start getting Native American folks to gather, meet up, surf and learn science on the coast and he is hoping to bring back the tribes’ practices. Chavez, of Nahua, Michoacán and New Mexican-Spanish descent, believes there needs to be a gradual reintroduction to relationships they had with the ocean and the kelp.

“To choose to develop a better relationship with kelp, first, you have to be able to know how to dive or swim,” he said. “And [you have to] be able to park in a coastal area [without] being afraid of people looking at you like you're from a different planet.”

Seeking solutions

Hohman has been a scientific diver on the North Coast since 2011 and has worked there with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and University of California, Davis, in addition to her role with GFNMS and GFA.

“I witnessed [the decline] firsthand and it was quite devastating to see these sites just completely disappear almost overnight,” she said. “Realizing that no one was really doing anything about it, I knew I wanted to try.”

Drawing up the restoration plan was a long process. Because kelp forests are hidden under the ocean, it involved many years of trying to bring attention to the issue. People didn’t begin realizing the scale of loss until local businesses and fisheries closed.

Hohman and team are in the process of identifying sites for restoration. They plan to employ local commercial divers to remove urchins, which will be repurposed for research projects or aquaculture. The rest will be composted. Then, they will replenish the bulk kelp supply with out-planting. They’re also mapping the kelp canopy to get an overview of the restoration site.

According to Hohman, the project will be a tough job. Although she’s confident in her team, she worries it will be difficult to spend that much time in the water. Figuring out what to do with the urchins is also an issue. And then there are people who think the efforts are too late and that the scale of loss is unmanageable, Hohman said. But she’s hopeful.

“Kelp forests are three-dimensional, you’ve got kelp providing habitat up. It’s like walking through a forest, except you’re swimming through a forest,” Michelle Zentgraf said. (Prachi Singh / USC)

Coming together for the ocean

According to Hapner, the Kashia tribe’s goal is to have ample tribal membership to be a part of that restoration and maintain the tribal knowledge base.

“The first time Abby [Abreanna Gomes] and I went out and saw them doing the survey, we looked at each other like we could do this,” Hapner said. “So our next step is getting some certified divers up to science grade to build that capacity and have people in the water to be an active participant because we haven't been able to be that active participant from the tribal side.”

The partnership has gotten them in contact with other tribes as well in the Tribal Marine Stewards Program. Without all this help, Hapner said, the situation would be dire for the ocean and also the Kashia tribe because of their reliance on the ocean and tribal practices that are culturally integral to them.

The tribe began doing kelp surveys with the restoration team in 2021. Hapner said, doing these ocean monitoring is putting the tribe back in their seat. Hapner and Gomes believe the support from their cultural department and the elders of the community is opening doors and giving their youth an opportunity to participate and pull in tribal knowledge.

“And I think just having tribal presence there that they know that we plan to be a part of this,” Gomes said. “And that it is also critical to have that presence.”

Chavez said opening up coastal spaces to indigenous peoples as fellow humans is one of the first steps in the right direction and getting Indigenous people to believe they're worthy enough to go to the beach.

A healthy kelp forest near Redondo beach, Nov. 17, 2022. (Prachi Singh / USC)

A diver with the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans during an annual subtidal survey on Aug. 8, 2018. (Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS)

Purple sea urchins take over kelp forests creating urchin barrens as the kelp dies at Pescadero Point, Aug. 2, 2019 (Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS)

Nina Hapner (middle) and Abreanna Gomes (right) in the process of ocean monitoring using drones on Kashia Coastal Reserve, Sept. 21, 2021. (Greater Farallones Association)

“There are half the people who don't think they're deserving,” he said. “And the other half don't know they can get there. So, they don't even think about it.”

Hapner also mentioned, although it’s changing, there is an uphill struggle of having a meaningful place in discussions. “There are entities out there that will take the word and knowledge of the sixth generation fisherman over what the tribe does, because they don't do it that way. They do it in a different way, and it's not considered as relevant,” she said. “Abby and I both have degrees. But the tribe with what they know sometimes will get dismissed because it's a tribe.”

For Chavez, native people putting their toes in the sand and showing up at the water's edge will make a huge difference “One of our teachers says you cannot protect something you don't understand. So it's one of those things, it's a slow building back of that relationship,” he said. A relationship with the ocean, and being around the kelp beds, starts with that.

Marc Chavez, founder of Native like Water, on the need for space near coasts to continue tribal practices.

Photo credit: Marc Chavez

Hapner said the next step for the Kashia tribe is putting divers in the water with Hohman and her crew. They also hope to do this in the kelp beds out of the Kashia coastal reserve by having Kashia divers go into the ocean to count the kelp stipes and map the kelp canopy within the territory. It’s a space of interest to the tribe as there are tribal members that go and collect kelp along the coast, Hapner said, and they would want the members to know that they’re keeping an eye on the resources.

According to her, such partnerships blend generational knowledge with Western science, filling in the gaps of awareness of nature. “I was told as a kid that you are a part of creation, but you're also responsible for creation,” she said. “So you're just not created. But you have a hand in making those changes and making sure that you are an active, integral part of it.”

For Hohman’s restoration project, the focus is on the loss of the kelp, species and diversity. For the tribe, there are additional impacts of loss of cultural resources and practices.

Hohman said they recognize that cultural resources and practices are vital for kelp restoration goals and she hopes that the collaboration with the tribes continues to strengthen to ensure that their goals and outcomes are cohesive.

“So we do have some parallels on what the concerns and priorities are. Our targets might be a little bit different, but I think in the end they're on the same path. They lead to the same place,” Hapner said. “We're not here to reinvent the wheel. We're just here to add to it and to make it better and have it tell the bigger story.”