Using Drones to Monitor The Kelp Ecosystem

A kelp forest is an area of the ocean with a dense kelp ecosystem. These ecosystems support an abundance of marine life. For many years scientists have been studying kelp forests to understand how many different ecological processes function. Kelp forests, especially those found along the east coast of Tasmania and Northern California, have drastically dwindled. Human stressors from over fishing nearshore ecosystems have led to the breakdown of many kelp forests. This has in turn led to an imbalance in the kelp forests, degrading them dramatically.

In 2019, Vienna Saccomanno joined The Nature Conservancy’s California Chapter to help address the depletion of the Northern California kelp forests. Vienna comes to The Nature Conservancy with a BA in Biology and International Political Economy from the University of Puget Sound, and a Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School. As an Ocean Science Associate in the Oceans Program, Vienna is a leader in how technology is used to collect data on spatial analysis of marine ecosystems.

For a baseline on the condition of the kelp forests along Mendocino and Sonoma counties, Vienna and her team first studied satellite images. The next step was to get more detailed, real time documentation of the kelp forests. To do that, Vienna began using drones to survey the water. “2019 was our first year of these surveys and we were basically surveying open water. There was just no kelp, literally, little to no kelp,” Vienna said. With the data collected by the drones, Vienna and the Oceans Project team released a paper titled A Structured Approach for Kelp Restoration and Management Decisions that outlines a plan of action for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As pointed out in the paper, kelp forest restoration is a timely and expensive undertaking. Because of this, the first course of action should be to implement preventative measures to protect the forests. If measures such as controlled fishing and diving are enforced, Vienna and her team were hopeful that the kelp forest would begin to self regenerate. The team also proposed the continued use of drones to monitor the kelp forests.

When the drone program began, the team was able to measure kelp forests covering an average of less than 0.4 hectares. The drones have continued to monitor a total of 36 sites and miraculously have seen forest regrowth begin. Though still below the average of 18 acres shown in historic satellite images, the 2020 survey reported an average of 2.2 hectares of kelp forest coverage. “To be out here in 2021 and see this strong uptick in kelp is just so exciting as a scientist,” Vienna said. “We know that this ecosystem is still not fully in balance and there’s still restoration work to be done.” Drone documentation will continue to allow scientists to see California’s kelp forest return to glory.

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