Help for the Orange County kelp

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Posted by on May 30, 2006 at 18:42:33:

A marine biologist simply won't give up on her efforts to grow kelp off Orange County.

The 10-year-old Virginia girl was wild for Jacques Cousteau - more precisely, for Cousteau's spectacular scuba trips through forests of giant kelp.

"I couldn't wait 'til the day I could swim through a kelp forest myself," recalls marine biologist Nancy Caruso, now 33.

Caruso got her wish, and then some. She's surely among the most tireless guardians of kelp along the Orange County coast. And these days, she doesn't just swim through the kelp she grows it herself.

She and other members of the California Coastkeeper Alliance do their best to keep Southern California kelp plantings healthy.

They often rely on donations of equipment by kelp enthusiasts. And they are dedicated to the notion - not without controversy in marine biology circles - that human intervention could be vital to coastal kelp forests and the myriad of creatures that inhabit them.

Kelp forests are considered important ocean ecosystems, providing nurseries for fish such as kelp bass and sheephead and food and shelter for 800 other species.

Despite some hard knocks, including the loss of a job, a swamped boat engine and significant cuts in funding, Caruso continues to try to grow kelp off the Laguna coast.

At the moment, she's working on restoring a patch at Crystal Cove that's been absent since 1983.

Caruso makes yearly trips to 12 kelp reefs in all, diving with tank and fins to check on a variety of organisms.

Funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be slashed by 60 percent come August, from about $234,000 per year to about $50,000, said Alliance project manager Dirk Burcham. That has to be split five ways among kelp restoration efforts up and down the California coast, leaving Caruso with about $10,000.

Some of the money will be replaced by grants from the state Coastal Conservancy, but just how long Caruso can keep the Orange County project going remains an open question.

Caruso has gotten by before almost purely on determination.

"We're just going to run until we can't run any more," she says. "I'm going to cross my fingers, and keep working."

One kelp plantation off Laguna Beach suffered its own tough times; it was nearly wiped out by a massive red tide that blocked light from the surface.

Caruso was delighted to discover after the red tide had passed that tiny kelp spores managed to hang on.

"There was baby kelp all over the reef," she said. "It was lovely."

Some kelp fronds remain, but it will take a while for the patch to reach the surface. "It used to be the largest kelp bed in Orange County," she said.

A little over a year ago, Caruso was riding a wave of success. Employed as a marine biologist with the Orange County Coastkeeper, she had grown an extensive kelp forest and generated waves of excitement through the environmental community and local schools.

The Coastkeeper project recruited high-school classes to grow kelp spores on "ecocarts." Divers then affixed them to reefs.

Coastkeeper groups can be found throughout the nation - river keepers, bay keepers and channel keepers among them - but they are more of a loose confederation than a single, monolithic organization.

A schism opened up between the Orange County Coastkeeper and the California Coastkeeper Alliance, based in Sacramento. Garry Brown, head of Orange County Coastkeeper, believed that performing consulting work for developers on controlling contaminated urban runoff was a legitimate pursuit for him and his group.

He said the Coastkeeper Alliance disagreed with him, believing his efforts created an appearance of collusion with developers.

The two groups had been sharing NOAA funding for kelp restoration, but the separation prompted Brown to end his group's involvement in the project.

Caruso lost her job, her boat and all her equipment.

"I was left with nothing," she said. "Luckily, I had just gotten a grant from the Coastal Conservancy."

She also had access to the NOAA funding through the Alliance. And she does part-time scientific work for the Orange County Sanitation District.

Meanwhile, Caruso had been working as hard on land as she had in the ocean. She'd recruited a large group of volunteer divers to assist her in tending the kelp.

She'd made countless presentations on kelp restoration.

And word of her efforts spread among schoolchildren and environmental activists.

"My heart was broken when they decided they didn't want to do the project any more," she said of Orange County Coastkeeper. "Then I saw the reaction of all the people who had been involved in it: all the teachers, all the volunteers. It was really touching to have everybody say, 'We really want to be part of it. What can we do to help?'"

The red-tide episode was perhaps Caruso's low point.

The rampant growth of organisms called dinoflagellates choked off the sun from the kelp, which rely on photosynthesis.

And during one of her trips to a kelp bed, the engine of Caruso's boat somehow filled with water.

"It took another two months or so to get a new engine," she said.

Once the new engine was in place, she made an anxious trip to the Laguna Beach kelp bed. That's when she found the scattering of young kelp plants.

Things were looking up until the latest loss of funding, part of a long list of budget cuts.

Some scientists, including Paul Dayton at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, question whether human efforts to grow kelp are worthwhile in the long run.

They say kelp growth is almost entirely governed by ocean conditions, temperature and surfaces available for kelp to grow on - and that, over time, kelp goes through cycles of boom or bust in sync with these changes, no matter what people do.

Caruso says that might be true. But from her perspective, it could take decades for kelp to re-establish itself naturally on the Orange County coast.

With a little help from her, however, the kelp is slowly returning - much sooner, she says, than it might have otherwise.

She recently accompanied high school students on a scuba dive at Catalina Island, reliving her early fascination with the underwater kelp forest experience.

"The students were so revved up," she said. "Their first ocean dive was in a kelp forest. This is like your first glimpse of the planet seeing the Grand Canyon. You get kind of jaded after that. It's the most beautiful sight in the world."

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