Along the North Coast, mixed news about the health of the undersea kelp forest 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Aerial surveys conducted each year to gauge abundance in the iconic kelp forests off the North Coast showed a slight improvement last fall, offering a glimmer of hope for the recovery of the coastal marine habitat, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has reported.

But conditions for the “bull kelp,” an annual type of seaweed — especially off Sonoma County — have become so bleak in recent years that even a reported doubling of the forest canopy during last year’s growing season has done little to bring the underwater habitat back to full strength, scientists said.

Despite patches that resemble the historic ecosystem in some ways, large swaths of ocean floor off the North Coast remain devoid of bull kelp and other fleshy algal species, prompting continued starvation among common marine herbivores like red abalone and urchins, they said.

Even with growth in the overall canopy last year, data indicates the kelp off Sonoma and Mendocino counties covered at least 95 percent less surface area in 2016 than it did in the banner year of 2008, said Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with the state wildlife agency.

The apparent expansion of the kelp canopy “is deceptive,” said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the agency’s invertebrate program, “because 2016 is still way below anything we would consider normal.”

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