Pacific Northwest
Kate Kaye / JPR News

OR - Can Oregon Stem the Loss of Complex Kelp Ecosystems?

In this special series for Jefferson Public Radio, reporter Kate Kaye takes us to Oregon’s rocky shores — visiting with volunteers monitoring black oystercatchers, researchers surveying gray whales and kelp, a South Coast ecotour guide, a North Coast crabber and more — to illuminate the challenges affecting rocky intertidal habitats, how new policy proposals seek to address them and what they could mean for Oregonians.

Lisa Hildebrand studies gray whales. And the Oregon State University grad student is a huge fan.

“They’re super acrobatic,” she says. “We see them twist around, they do headstands, they swim on their sides.”

But the whales that come down to the southern Oregon Coast are part of an elaborate ecosystem, one reliant on a critical component: kelp.

For one thing, some of the whales’ prey, tiny shrimp called mysids, hide in kelp.

“The gray whales will blow a bubble blast underwater sometimes very close to kelp,” Hildebrand says, “and we’re not sure yet, but we think it’s to kind of scare the mysids, the zooplankton, out of the kelp and then the whales can easily just pluck them off.”

Scientists suspect that if there’s less kelp, potentially there could be fewer shrimp, which could mean fewer gray whales will come here to find them. And these days there’s less kelp. In some places along the Pacific Coast, a lot less. One study shows more than 90% of a kelp forest in Northern California was depleted in 2014.

To get a look at the state of local kelp beds, I went out with Dave Lacey. He’s the owner and guide at Southcoast Tours, a paddling and fishing tour company.

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