Merkley, colleagues introduce legislation to restore critical kelp forests

ns. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Angus King of Maine have teamed up with Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA-02) to introduce the bicameral Help Our Kelp Act.

Over the last 50 years, the changing climate, poor water quality, and overfishing have damaged between 40-60 percent of our kelp forests. Kelp forest ecosystems not only provide food and habitat for hundreds of fish and marine mammals, these ecosystems also support coastal communities by protecting coastlines, supporting sustainable fisheries, and driving local economies and jobs. Long-term recovery of these kelp forests remain uncertain.

This legislation would invest federal resources towards state, local, and federal partners combatting this cascading challenge.

“Oregon’s kelp forests provide critical habitats and food sources for marine mammals, birds, and many fish species that drive Oregon’s commercial fishing industry and coastal community economies,” said Senator Merkley. “As healthy kelp forests are rapidly dwindling, these marine mammals, birds, and fish are losing their habitats, throwing off entire ecosystems and sending economies into uncharted waters.”

“Climate change and human activity are both having widespread impacts on ecosystems around the globe—and the coastal communities in Maine are no different,” said Senator King. “The Help Our Kelp Act is an important step to ensure that our iconic Maine fisheries, and surrounding communities, are able to serve as a habitat for marine life well into the future. We need continued investments and safeguards to protect our fisheries, and our Maine way of life. Thanks to my colleagues for recognizing the importance of kelp forests and working to protect one of Maine’s vital resources.”

“Healthy kelp forests play an important role in marine ecosystems, sustainable fisheries, and coastal communities. But they’re getting wiped out along the North Coast, causing serious impacts on our ocean and everyone who depends on it,” said Rep. Huffman. “Local communities are working hard to restore these vital ecosystems, but climate change and an epidemic of voracious kelp-eating urchins have created a perfect storm, making this problem especially difficult to solve. So, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach. With our bill, we can direct the necessary federal resources to support important recovery efforts before it’s too late.” 

The Help Our Kelp Act would:

  • Establish a new NOAA grant program to fund conservation, restoration, and management efforts;
  • Focus on addressing the greatest relative regional declines, long term ecological or socioeconomic resilience, or are in focal recovery areas identified by Tribal, federal, or state management plans; and
  • Authorize $5 million per year from FY2024-FY2028.

In the Senate, this legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

In the House, this legislation is also cosponsored by Representatives Suzan DelBene (D-WA-01), Nanette Barragán (D-CA-44), Scott Peters (D-CA-50), Derek Kilmer (D-WA-06), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07), Rick Larsen (D-WA-02), and Kevin Mullin (D-CA-15).

The Help Our Kelp Act is endorsed by the Center for the Blue Economy, Seattle Aquarium, Bay Foundation, Blue Frontier, American Sportfishing Association, Pt. Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Northwest Trek and Wildlife Park, Friends of Zoo Boise, Zoo Boise, Greater Farallones Association, The Ocean Foundation, Oregon Zoo, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Surfrider Foundation, Noyo Center for Marine Science, Woodland Park Zoo, Bainbridge Island Land Trust, Puget Soundkeeper, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Ocean Conservancy, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and the Oregon Kelp Alliance.

“In Washington state, we’re studying the conditions necessary for healthy kelp forests to inform effective restoration efforts,” said Dr. Erin Meyer, Chief Conservation Officer at the Seattle Aquarium. “The Help Our Kelp Act will enable more projects to conserve, restore, and manage these critical ecosystems, which endangered salmon, sunflower sea stars, and a multitude of others call home.”

“Kelp forests are an important fisheries habitat on the California coast and a priority habitat for the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries. Since 2014, bull kelp forests on the north-central California coast have declined by an estimated 90% due to a combination of stressors such as climate-related impacts, including in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries are our nation’s most significant natural and cultural marine areas and as such, are a high priority for kelp ecosystem restoration efforts. Kelp forests are economically, ecologically, and culturally important habitats and are essential to restore and protect,” said Deb Self, Greater Farallones Association Executive Director. “The Help Our Kelp Act is needed to ensure essential funding for restoration of this ecosystem that coastal communities along the West Coast rely on. This legislation will make a huge positive difference for tribes, fisheries communities, students, and businesses. As a nonprofit dedicated to helping to recover and protect this vital habitat within an important national marine sanctuary, Greater Farallones Association is in strong support of the Help Our Kelp Act and commends Representative Huffman’s and Senator Merkley’s efforts to advance this bill.”

“The Monterey Bay Aquarium has long been committed to understanding and safeguarding the kelp forests at the heart of the West Coast’s coastal ecosystems and economy. We’re learning that partnerships and collaboration can help bring our kelp forests back to the levels of abundance that benefit people and wildlife alike. Monterey Bay Aquarium supports the Help Our Kelp Act’s thoughtful approach to ensuring much-needed restoration and research efforts can be eligible for catalytic federal support, and we hope Congress supports this bill,” said Aimee David, Vice President, U.S. & California Ocean Conservation, Policy and Advocacy, Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“Healthy kelp forests are essential to protecting our coastlines, fisheries and marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, kelp forests are experiencing alarming declines on the West Coast, which is why the Help Our Kelp Act is needed to protect and restore these invaluable ecosystems. Surfrider Foundation calls on members of Congress to swiftly pass this important bill into law,” said Pete Stauffer, Ocean Protection Manager, Surfrider Foundation.

“Puget Soundkeeper advocates to protect and enhance the Puget Sound, its waters, and all the communities that depend on it. Kelp Forests provide critical ecosystem functions which support salmon recovery, mitigate climate change, and combat ocean acidification just to name a few. Investing in Kelp forests in the Pacific Northwest will help our endangered Chinook and Orcas. Help Our Kelp is a pragmatic way to further these interests,” said Emily Gomez, Director of Law & Policy, Puget Soundkeeper.

“Salmon rely on several habitats across their life cycles, from healthy streams to wild kelp forests,” said Cullen Brady, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Land Trust. “The grant program created through the Help Our Kelp Act will support important efforts to restore thriving kelp ecosystems where young salmon can find refuge and plentiful food.” 

“Kelp forests are home to otters and sharks and are natural defenders of our coastlines. Native to several national marine sanctuaries, they are carbon sinks, and critically important to fisheries. We must do more to address, prevent, and reverse kelp forest loss in California and throughout our nation’s waters as a key nature-based solution to tackle climate change. I thank Congressman Huffman and the co-sponsors for their leadership to recover kelp forests,” said National Marine Sanctuary Foundation President and CEO Joel R. Johnson. 

“Kelp forests are complex and dynamic ecosystems that are among the most productive in the world. Not only do they support a diverse array of marine life, sequester carbon, and provide coastal resiliency, but they’ve also supported Tribes and communities and served as a traditional customary food source since time immemorial,” said Jon Ross, Director of Arctic Indigenous-Led Conservation at Ocean Conservancy. “Conserving these ecosystems is essential, and Congressman Huffman and Senator Merkley’s Help Our Kelp Act will provide vital funding to protect kelp forests and ensure that they can continue to support biodiversity and provide the essential ecosystem services on which coastal and Indigenous communities depend.”

“The health of Columbia River salmon is tied to the health of the ocean ecosystem where they spend a large portion of their lives,” said Aja DeCoteau, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “Our member tribes support efforts to protect or restore salmon habitat wherever these far-travelling fish journey. Juvenile salmon especially depend on the kelp forests off the Oregon and Washington coasts, an ecosystem that has been struggling in recent years. Senator Merkley’s “Help our Kelp Act” has our support and we look forward to working together to protect this dynamic and important marine ecosystem that provides habitat for not only salmon but an entire community of wildlife, provides carbon sequestration, acts as a buffer for coastal erosion, and provides important ecological balance to the marine system.”

“The Oregon Kelp Alliance is excited to support the Help Our Kelp Act in support of healthy kelp forests in Oregon and around our nation. The Oregon Kelp Alliance is currently piloting kelp forest ecosystem restoration aiming to use the approaches outlined in the bill, including sea urchin grazer control, bull kelp enhancement, and the reintroduction of sunflower sea stars, which prey on sea urchins that eat kelp. This bill will provide the kind of support needed to carry out the active conservation, protection, and restoration our kelp forests need now,” said Tom Calvanese, Project Director for the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA). The Oregon Kelp Alliance is currently working with coastal communities on a NOAA/NCCOS funded Kelp Forest Survey and Kelp Forest Restoration Plan working with coastal communities and scientists on aerial drone and underwater surveys of kelp forests in Oregon, and building local capacity for kelp forest stewardship. These efforts are guided by the ORKA Science and Technical Advisory Committee, chaired by Dr. Sara Hamilton, ORKA Scientific Coordinator. “These important habitats have undergone significant changes in recent years due to warming oceans, loss of predators, and population booms of purple sea urchins, which eat kelp.” Sara is a recent graduate of Oregon State University, where she earned her PhD in Integrative Biology studying kelp forest ecology, and completed her post-doc at UC Davis. “ORKA appreciates Senator Jeff Merkley’s long-standing and strong advocacy for healthy kelp forests, and their contribution to the commercial fisheries and biodiversity of Oregon’s nearshore oceans.” 

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