Back in the day, when I was studying ecology as an undergrad, I learned about the giant kelp forests off the coast of California because they are home to a keystone species, the ever adorable sea otter. The sea otters like to feast on sea urchins. But when there aren’t enough of the cute little marine mammals, the sea urchins run rampant, feasting on the giant kelp. Unchecked, the sea urchins can destroy an entire forest.
Why is that bad? The Monterey Bay Aquarium explains the importance of the giant kelp:
Giant kelp is harvested as a source of algin, an emulsifying and binding agent used in the production of many foods and cosmetics, like ice cream, toothpaste and cereals.
Pieces of decomposing kelp (detritus) sink to the depths of the ocean, providing food for deep sea creatures.
Giant kelp has a multitude of inhabitants. Invertebrates graze on the blades, fish seek shelter in the fronds and thousands of invertebrates live in the holdfast—such as brittle stars, sea stars, anemones, sponges and tunicates.
The National Marine Sanctuaries program has created an online media library with plenty of photos of kelp and other marine treasures, such as sea lions, as well as some truly devastating pictures of the human impacts on the oceans.
Credit: Steve Lonhart / Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary