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Assessing the Potential for Restoration and Permaculture of Tasmania’s Giant Kelp Forests

 Kelp forests dominate coastal environments in temperate and subpolar latitudes around the world and, much like terrestrial forests, create complex habitats that support diverse and productive food webs. In Australia, kelp forests are the foundation of the Great Southern Reef, a continental-scale temperate reef system that sustains high levels of biodiversity, endemism and productivity. Kelp forests in Australia support numerous species of conservation and economic importance, including weedy seadragons, grey nurse sharks, rock lobsters, and abalone. The commercial and social benefits of kelp forests are also substantial, especially in coastal communities, and include indirect effects on commercial and recreational fisheries (e.g. effects on prey species and coastal food webs), ecotourism, and other forms of marine recreation (e.g. Kelp scuba diving). Nonetheless, they represent a valuable opportunity for scientists seeking to learn more about what kind of life-forms and underwater conditions occur in these unique marine formations. 

Unfortunately, kelp forests in many locations around Australia and in other parts of the world are experiencing habitat loss due to climate change, overgrazing from herbivores, coastal development and pollution. Dense giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) forests were previously a conspicuous and iconic feature of the Tasmanian coast, but loss of ~95% of these giant kelp forests over the past several decades has seen them listed by the Australian Government as an endangered marine community – the first such listing for a marine community in Australia. The decline of giant kelp forests in eastern Tasmania is associated with increased influence of warm and nutrient-poor East Australian Current water. 
 Active restoration of these degraded and disappearing habitats represents a potential approach for conservation of giant kelp forests. Moreover, the same techniques that underpin restoration may be able to facilitate development of giant kelp permaculture for commercial harvest and integrated multi-trophic aquaculture. Currently, remnant and physiologically healthy individuals of giant kelp occur in eastern Tasmania where there used to be dense forests. Thus, there appear to exist thermally tolerant giant kelp individuals that may provide opportunity for restoration and permaculture.

This project – in collaboration with the Climate Foundation as part of their work to regenerate food security, ecosystem services and mitigate the effects of climate change – aims to establish whether there is the possibility of restoring Tasmania’s giant kelp forests by identifying individual giant kelp that may be better adapted to warmer sea temperatures. This pilot project is a necessary ‘Phase I’ of a potential larger project and aims to assess the potential for future up-scaling of restoration and marine permaculture efforts and fill critical knowledge-gaps to provide scientific rigor and risk-management in these efforts.

Introducing the Kelp Tracker

OzFish Unlimited and its project partners have made a call-out to Tasmanian Rec Fishers to help track the State’s disappearing giant kelp forests via the free phone app: Kelp Tracker.

Kelp Tracker allows recreational fishers and community members to ‘log’ their sightings of endangered and disappearing giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). Sightings are then verified by scientists and over time this data will help to create a map of the remaining giant underwater forests.

This will then allow scientists to locate and study the remnant giant kelp which can identify patches that might harbour warm water-tolerant kelp and locate areas that might be suitable for habitat restoration.

Using the Kelp Tracker, rec fishers can quickly and easily install the free app and report any giant kelp sightings they see on their travels straight into their phones.

Funded by: The Climate Foundation and NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub

Contributors: Dr Cayne Layton, Dr Jeff Wright, Professor Craig Johnson, Dr Brian von Herzen, Sam Harrington, Craig Copeland (OzFish Unlimited)

Excerpts from www.imas.utas.edu.au/kelprestorationa