Southeast Alaska

“Bull kelp loves places where the ocean runs like rivers. The intricacies of the SE geography creates so much diverse shoreline that bull kelp can find its happy place no matter how picky it is.” 

Matt Kern, Barnacle Foods

Sitka Sound and Chadham Strait behind it is just one section of the complex watery geography that is Southeast Alaska.

Nereocystis Nirvana

Bull kelp is very happy in Southeast Alaska, the funny panhandle of the United States that sticks down into Canada. Like British Columbia, there are countless straits, waterways, and thoroughfares—thin passageways of water between the thousands of islands that make up this unique stretch of coastline. As you move towards the poles the difference between low tide and high tide gets greater. Near Juneau, the capital of Alaska, accessible only by ferry or plane, there are twenty-five foot tides! This means an enormous amount of ocean water is pulled through each of these constricted passageways, first one direction and then the other, in the same twelve hour tidal cycles as everywhere else. And, being farther north, the ocean being pushed around is cold and nutrient-dense making this complex coastline classic kelp country. As the fast-growing bull kelp uses up the nearby ocean nutrients, a fresh supply is brought in on each tide, sustaining its remarkable single year of development. 

Bull kelp beds here are abundant, healthy, stable, and in many places expanding. The infinite types of shoreline presents the opportunity for bull kelp to find its preferred habitat: protected or open to swell, near fresh water glacial output, or a river estuary (either of which bring added nutrients into the nearshore environment), rocky bottom or more cobbled. 

Bull kelp bed near Juneau
Photo by Barnacle Foods
Bull kelp bed near Juneau
Photo by Barnacle Foods

An additional benefit for bull kelp wellbeing in SE Alaska is that both top predators are alive and well in the kelp forests. Sea otters are plentiful; their prey is varied, but the urchin in their diet here are the large red urchin and the smaller green urchins that are native to Alaska and down into BC. The sunflower sea star populations are recovering from the wasting syndrome and growing. A recent crab pot pulled up near Juneau was reportedly covered with the rag-mops, as sunflower sea stars are called by fishers, since their long arms droop down like a mop.

All of these factors combine to make Southeast Alaska perhaps bull kelp’s pride of place. There are other kelps as well, especially dragon kelp (Eualaria fistulosa) which tends to combine easily with bull kelp in mixed beds, and giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), which, in Southeast, tends to like different conditions than the bull kelp. The 1912 surveys done by the US Department of Agriculture, hoping to harvest this kelp bounty for the potassium salts it could provide the fertilizer industry, list 1162 kelp beds just in the inner waterways of SE Alaska. The vast majority of these were listed as exclusively Nereocystis beds; the second most as mixed Eualaria and Nereocystis, and a few exclusively Macrocystis beds.

Nereocystis leutkeana with Eualaria fistulosa
Patrick Webster @underwaterpat

Nereocystis leutkeana with Eualaria fistulosa

Photo by Patrick Webster @underwaterpat

Talking to Matt Kern, co-founder of Barnacle Foods, a company taking great care to observe and learn from the kelp beds of Southeast Alaska, the current bull kelp beds show a similar distribution and could, in fact, be more robust than those a century ago. Barnacle Foods’ efforts to map the kelp beds around Juneau will create a critical database, as kelp mapping activities are doing elsewhere, to inform efforts to nurture and preserve the wild beds of bull kelp and support the growing Alaskan kelp farming enterprises. 


The tide takes six hours to come in, or flood, from low to high and then takes another six hours to fall, or ebb, from high to low. There are two highs and two lows every twenty-four hours. This timing is the same if you are at the equator with a very tiny or no tide at all or up in Northeast Alaska, where the bulge of the ocean created by the alignment of the moon and sun relative to Earth creates much larger tides. A typical tide in Northern California is about 7 feet with extremes at the full and new moon pushing it up towards 10 feet. An extreme tide in Juneau is close to 25 feet between high and low! It is always important to consult the tide charts when you head to the beach or go out on the water.

Type Locality: Sitka Sound

The west-facing coastal alcove of Sitka Sound is where western science got its first named Nereocystis luetkeana. From 1826 to 1829, amidst the exploitive ventures of the fur trade, a Russian exploratory expedition was the first to collect samples of the great Nereocystis from the Pacific coast of North America. The corvette Seniavin, under the command of Captain Fedor Petrovich Lütke, plied the shores of Alaska, surveying and collecting specimens, especially seaweeds from Sitka Sound. The lead naturalist was Dr. Karl Heinrich Mertens, but another, Alexander Postels, demonstrated a genius for sketching and an affinity for the extraordinary seaweeds found along the Alaskan coast. In 1840, in partnership with the botanist Franz Joseph Ruprecht, Postels created one of the most extraordinary folios of marine algae of all time, Illustrationes algarum.

Mature bull kelp, lithograph from Illustrationes Algarum, 1840, by Alexander Postels, with Nereocystis named and described by Franz Josef Ruprecht

Postels imbues each lithograph with all the grandeur each marine alga deserves. But even the enormous page size of the “elephant folio” could not contain the mature Nereocystis, which he depicts wrapped around itself creating a crown complete with tiny holdfast holding its rock. Bull kelp was officially described in the Postels and Ruprecht publication and was given the species name Nereocystis luetkeana by Mertens, commemorating the leadership and scientific zeal of their commander. Mertens notes with delight the astonishing bull kelp (at that time called simply Fuci) as seen for the first time in Norfolk Sound, as Sitka Harbor was then called: “Norfolk Sound is equally rich in beautiful Fuci as in rare and remarkable marine animals; and I doubt if a more delightful strand for sea-weeds is to be found … one was too remarkable to be passed over in silence. The more so, as it is quite a feature of Norfolk Sound.” Mertens describes the lower stipe as thin as “packthread” and used locally and throughout the Aleutians as fishing line, the great upper cylinder of the stipe used as a container, or siphon, to bail water out of a canoe or “baidarkas.” He notes that the Russians call this seaweed “sea otter cabbage,” remarking how otters make “particular choice of this seaweed, as its favorite refuge and residence; delighting to rock and sleep on the long cylindrical bladders, which, like enormous sea-serpents, float on the surface of the water and individually sweep between the little islands, rendering the channels impassable for boats.”

Sitka Sound today has bull kelp, more newly established giant kelp, otters, sunflower sea stars, sea urchins as well as pinto abalone. Peril Strait, the long narrow passage carving into the belly of Chichagof Island behind Sitka, has massive beds of bull kelp, a bounty that Californians hope to restore to their shores someday.

Sea Otter and Sunflower Sea Star: Are They Here?

Yes! More than any other region, the waterways of Southeast Alaska have proven productive habitat for the reintroduced northern sea otter.

From 1965 to 1969, 412 sea otters were loaded onto C-130 transport planes in Amchitka (plus a few from Prince William Sound) and their kennels were transferred at Annette Island to Grumman Goose amphibian planes for release at six sites, from Yakutat in the north to Dixon Entrance in the South. From these diverse sites in the SE Alaskan archipelago of islands and waterways—replete with urchin, sea cucumber, crabs and clams—sea otter populations grew and spread to all waters of the region totalling about 25,000 animals today. Their growing population has stymied remote Indigenous communities dependent on foraging for a healthy livelihood as well as the lucrative fisheries around these invertebrates. Alaska Natives are permitted to harvest sea otters for traditional use, and this harvest can control sea otter populations at a hyper local level.  

The cohort of mid-20th century biologists were correct in their concern for sea otters at Amchitka. The detonation of the atomic tests there did prove fatal for many sea otters. It is estimated that over 1,000 otters died both from the blast itself and in underwater landslides caused by the blast.

Yes, there are sunflower sea stars here. 

The colder waters of Alaska have mitigated the effects of sea star wasting syndrome, so there are Pycnopodia in Southeast Alaska, with pockets of sea star wasting disease still found. Generally it is not hard to find Pycnopodia in Alaska.

Kelp Farms are an Alaska Thing
Sugar Kelp
Artwork by Josie Iselin

The cold and calm waters of Southeast Alaska and up into Prince William Sound offer the right conditions for kelp farming. The nutrient-rich waterways, sounds, coves and inlets that is the mosaic of SE and South Central Alaska coastline are sheltered from the dynamic wave action of an open coast like California and can protect the lines and buoys (home base for the growing kelp) from blowing away or being destroyed, as well as provide the key ingredient to speedy kelp growth—cold ocean. The Alaska Sea Grant program, as well as a number of Indigenous advocacy programs, such as The Native Conservancy, are encouraging local kelp farms. There is a lot of promise, with about 25–30 kelp farms in operation throughout Alaska. But there is also risk. The market for kelp products is still being created, and the distances in Alaska are significant; wet kelp is heavy and bulky, so drying and processing must happen near the farm site. Emphasis can be on farming kelp for local distribution as food amenity to elders and families but it is important to keep track of young families and communities moving into this space—which is getting so much hype and imbued with so much potential—to make sure they make ends meet in the end.

Alaska and Maine are in the kelp farming world together. They share cold water and protected coastlines but they also share a native kelp that is perfect for farming. Sugar kelp, or Saccharina latissima, is a huge-bladed, flouncy, golden beauty of a kelp, with a short stipe and plenty of good tasting blade that grows quickly, and can  be dried and transformed into a number of kelp products, from bovine feed to soil supplements to umami-flavored meal enhancements. Bull kelp on the other hand, has never been the go-to farmed kelp or seaweed. It had a cultivation handbook created in the 1990s to explain how to inoculate the seeded twine and grow lines by propagating the wild sori patches in the lab, but bull kelp farming never had strong commercial possibilities associated with it. One copy of the book exists. 

Seagrove kelp farm in Doyle Bay, SE Alaska 

Photo by Seagrove Kelp
Sugar kelp farm
Photo by Barnacle Foods

Barnacle Foods and Bull Kelp Farming

A company in Juneau has reason to pursue farming bull kelp and acknowledges that it is very different than farming sugar kelp. Barnacle Foods began with a kelp relish recipe using the fantastically abundant bull kelp nearby. Their jarred relish and hot sauce took off, making their products visible on shelves across the country.  While the wild kelp beds in SE Alaska are abundant, Barnacle Foods, as a responsible company intimately tied to place, began using drones to map the kelp beds in the region as well as partnering with a kelp farmer to farm bull kelp. These are early days. Bull kelp is so buoyant that it floats the lines to the surface in ways other kelps don’t. The farmed kelp does not grow the long, fleshy, pickle-worthy stipes that wild kelp grows. Barnacle Foods is determined to study the wild beds to learn the particulars of what bull kelp loves, so that this can be translated to the kelp farms as best practices: perhaps a fixed holdfast near the bottom as opposed to moving up and down as sugar kelp lines do. Maybe bull kelp needs to grow in clumps along the seed lines, instead of a continuous row, so that flow can reach each group of baby bull kelp? And as Matt Kern, Barnacle Foods co-founder, points out, you don’t grow tomatoes the same way you grow kale, so why should bull kelp grow the way sugar kelp does? This commitment to close observation aligns with Barnacle’s mission to protect and support the coastal organisms and communities it is surrounded by.

And down the coast in Humboldt, California, a bull kelp farm’s output has another purpose: restoration.


This is just the beginning. Please go to our Southeast Alaska Resources Page to learn more about the kelp work being done in this region