Kelp As Kin

Why Bull Kelp?

Bull kelp, or Nereocystis luetkeana, grows in the ocean waters just off the coast of the North American continent from Central California to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. These waters are cold and inhospitable to even the most adventurous and trained divers, so the bull kelp story has remained hidden beneath the ocean surface, its world and its secrets kept by the lid of the tide and the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean. Despite growing research and interest, much about this species and the dynamics of the bull kelp forest ecosystems remain a mystery.

This is why bull kelp is worthy of our regard and our attention. It is worth knowing and learning about so that we might learn from it to better serve the oceans in their ability to create the biodiversity that makes our planet unique and makes our life as humans possible.

Bull kelp is a magnificent organism. 
It is surprising, opportunistic, undervalued, foundational, resilient, and vulnerable.

Walking the beach in Northern California, Oregon, Coastal Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska usually means encountering big piles of the twisted ropes of bull kelp wrack along the shore, especially after winter storms. Divers and snorkelers get to swim amidst the golden blades and snaking bull kelp stipes, feeling the smooth kelp tissue in heavily gloved hands, watching sun filter through the golden blades while encountering fish, seals and plentiful invertebrates that thrive in the bull kelp forest. Bull kelp is extraordinary in its resilience and opportunism, but it is also vulnerable to changing ocean conditions. 

The earth’s continents all have kelp forests growing in the ocean waters along their temperate (as opposed to tropical) edges, each created by different species of prodigiously photosynthesizing brown algae. Although the term 'kelp’ refers technically to brown seaweeds in the order Laminariales, it is also used more generally for large brown seaweeds that make overstory or understory ocean forests, groves or beds. Kelp forests are critical to sustaining biodiversity of the oceans while uptaking vast amounts of the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere by the oceans. But these underwater forests are hugely susceptible to rising water temperatures and other stressors we have been placing on our oceans. Everywhere around the globe, kelp forests are rapidly diminishing.

Mature bull kelp is an eco-engineer

It creates habitat for countless other organisms, from tiny isopods and the larval stages of sea stars, urchins and other animals, to mature sea urchins, abalone, anemones, fish populations of all sorts, seals, juvenile salmon, sea otters, and almost 900 species of other seaweeds.

Bull kelp is a primary producer

It is the wheat, clover or oak tree of the underwater forest. It is the base of the vast ocean food web.

By venturing into the pages of this webstory we will learn about bull kelp and the kelp forest it creates. We will meet a cast of characters recognized as essential players in the great drama that unfolds beneath the waves of the Pacific. We will also go to different regions along the coastline where the drama that is the kelp forest ecology plays out in different ways, given the geography, history and characters of that place.

By telling diverse bull kelp stories from different regions we hope to create a "coastal anthology" of sorts that encompasses an array of topics and issues: social equity, biodiversity, historical ecology, restoration and research, shifting baselines, kelp farming, Indigenous stewardship, ocean warming, carbon cycles, kelp mapping, and fisheries practices and management. 

Bull kelp will be our guide.

“The water in our cells is the same as the water at the bottom of the ocean. I love the kinship that chemistry implies.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer


Natural systems, including the bull kelp forest, evolved to withstand crisis: A volcanic eruption on the Kenai Peninsula, earthquakes lifting the sea floor 25 feet, 200 year storms ripping kelp beds from their rocky holds, and fluctuations in ocean temperature. Mechanisms such as overpopulation, redundancy of top, or keystone, predators, cold nutrient-dense ocean water, and ocean dynamics playing out over the long term allowed the richness of life along the Pacific Coast’s edge to rebound and rejuvenate. That is what resilience is.

As humans we have been intertwined and interdependent upon the environments we are embedded within, and once held deep relationships of reciprocity and respect with the creatures and plants, both terrestrial and oceanic.

But systems of commerce and colonialism in just the last few hundred years overtook these relationships. The western notion that humans are somehow outside of nature, and had the prerogative to mine ecologies of their natural resilience became the accepted practice. But when stressor after stressor is placed on these oceanic systems, when the resilience has been mined out, when notions of ‘sustainable’ implies just that—just enough rather than more than enough–and with the ultimate environmental stress of climate change, the complex networks of interdependent life have a harder and harder time rebounding. The decline of bull kelp forests are evidence of this.

If we consider bull kelp as a relation, as kin, and understand how foundational it is to so much we hold dear, we might help restore resilience of these underwater forests and begin to reverse this trajectory of mutual decline.

We hope that this particular organism, bull kelp, once understood and appreciated, can be an inspiration and a guide to us humans, and serve as an example of how to create foundations of support for the world  around us. The bull kelp can be a talisman to rewilding our human mind.