Kelp forests have provided for as long as can be remembered. These rich and beautiful ecosystems are thick with a diversity of life and protect vulnerable, young fish as they grow. Kelp forests create places for animals to live, provide food for them to eat, and slow waves and currents to make life easier for so many species.
For millennia, humans lived in natural balance with this place. This started to change in the 1800s when the international market for kuu sea otter pelts grew. Eventually native kuu were extirpated. In their absence guuding.ngaay Red sea urchin, styuu Green sea urchin, and daws styuu Purple sea urchin grew overabundant and consumed the expansive kelp forests that once covered Haida Gwaii’s coasts.
Today young herring, salmon, cod, and flatfish must take sanctuary in what scattered hlkyama Bull kelp, ngaal Giant kelp, ngaal gaa’an Brown kelp remains. Vast, three-dimensional ecosystems crammed full of giant algae, sometimes 10-meters long, turn to barrens. Without places to grow, unhindered currents sweep away the planktonic young of all species.
To address this problem a partnership of organizations began researching this imbalance at Gaysiigas Kun Calm Ocean Point, the northeastern-most point of Gaysiigas Gwaay Murchison Island. They aimed to test whether they could restore kelp forests by removing guuding.ngaay, just like kuu would. Haida Fisheries Program divers and a commercial fishing crew removed over 75% of guuding.ngaay from about one kilometre of shoreline in autumn 2018. Later, in spring 2019, five vessels and crew set out to harvest as much guuding.ngaay as possible over three kilometres of shoreline at Gaysiigas Kun. The partners distributed guuding.ngaay in communities, at community events, and to food programs over the course of the project.
Project partners include: Council of the Haida Nation, Gwaii Haanas, Haida Fisheries Program, Parks Canada Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association, Hakai Institute, Tula Foundation, Florida State University, University of Oregon, University of British Columbia, and University of New Brunswick.
When restoration began, guuding.ngaay had overrun Gaysiigas Kun and were so overabundant that very little else could grow. Kelp grew in a narrow, shallow fringe right at the low tide mark. Over-grazing had reduced the once-bountiful area to just ten stipes of kelp on the shallowest area of the restoration site.
However, after restoration kelp forests have bounced back incredibly quickly. Hundreds of hlkyama grow in areas of all depths, some ten-metres long with thicker stipes. In more sheltered locations small groves of perennial ngaal have returned and grow to over three metres tall.
This remarkable transformation has created more habitat for abalone and nearshore fishes, improved shoreline protection, and increased marine nutrients overall. Scientists expect that it is very likely iinang herring will also benefit from better spawning and rearing areas. Ngaal and hlkyama are two of their favourite places to lay eggs.
If the partners can keep guuding.ngaay at bay, then Haida citizens can also expect to see the return of a biologically diverse community of seaweeds in the coming years.
Chiixuu tll iinaasdll is providing additional benefits as program partners bring additional skills and local training. For example, Hakai Institute’s scientific divers have been training local divers through the Haida Fisheries Program.