Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

14. I recently re-experienced awe at naturformen wandering on the coastal shore in Monterrey and much of northern California’s benches, from Mendocino to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore to Big Sur, in ways that occasioned this post. If sea lettuces have recently washed ashore in an unmoored piles along Monterrey’s shores in 2015-16, in what local commentators spun as an abundant gift of free edible kelp on offer to the peninsula’s upscale residents,–

Vern Fischer/San Jose Mercury Nws/July 17, 2015

–born not by winter storms, but rather echoing the record-setting Sargassum ​blooms that were the result of warming temperatures leading to the declaration of national emergencies in Caribbean regions, as huge masses of floating mega-algae floated off the coast of Brazil, that have appeared in satellite imagery since 2011 in the Caribbean, as large undisciplined masses of seaweed, perhaps starting from the region where the Amazon River’s ocean discharge stimulated increased Sargassum growth, which has been increasing intrusive on Caribbean beaches as it has wandered north, clogging the coastal habitat of sea turtles, tantamount to an invasion of brown seaweed foreign to the region’s waters, converting seaweed-free beaches into unfamiliar swamps. The origins of the algae was unknown, but is perhaps tied to the increased iron nutrients in the Amazon’s sediment discharge.

Giant Sargassum Belt, 2011-13 (MODIS)/NASA Earth Observatory
designed by Mengqiu Wang and Chuanmin Hu, USF 

–and crated the notorious “golden floating rain forest of The Atlantic Ocean,” so huge that ocean currents meant it also invaded much of the eastern coast of the United States, although the limited aerial surveys that were performed 1992-2015 have provided only a partial mapping of its extensive unmoored oceanic wanderings, with an unprecedented 20 million tons floating on ocean waters before covering beaches as it washed up on shores of the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and east coast of Florida in weird atypical algal blooms that “choked,” “mucked up,” or “carpeted” what had often been. white sand beaches.

The massive disruption of coastal environments faced a quandary.

The bull kelp that had washed ashore before my own coastal wanderings on the Monterrey peninsula was not so threatening. But it sent me into Haeckel-like reveries at their biomorphic structure kelp and triggered immediate reflection on the geometry of their vegetative forms–

–to more papery or lettuce-like plants, which Haeckle and others had increasingly recognized and prized as evidence of preserving intriguingly primitive biologic forms obscured by later evolutionary processes–

–but also to wonder about the unrooting of these huge kelp plants.

It has long seemed, in seeing seaweed stretched along the seashore, as if a curtain were being drawn back on a long- hidden record of the private nature of submarine life along the sandy stretch of coast. So strong was the sense that the seaweeds were feminized as hair, thin, diaphanous veils as of gendered clothing, before being promoted as primitive building blocks of life. The rise of the scientific study of seaweeds as animal specimens from the nineteenth century began from women scientists who attended to the forms of seaweed clustered near the shores, but extended to expansive seaweed expeditions–that reveal the prodigious copious nature of seaweeds as Alaria Tennefolia on the Alaskan shore–

–mammoth long-preserved plants that were publicly exhibited on the sides of improvised sheds after being retrieved from the sea.

The trawling of new seaweed specimens set a stage for scientiic admiration of their structures, and prepared for the subsequent farming of new seaweed specimens. But that is a perhaps related story of a victory of aquaculture.

Seaweeds of different sorts seem to have floated or been swept ashore with increased frequency in the early fall and winter of 2019, despite a lack of pronounced coastal storms; the plants seem to have drifted e washed considerably close-in to shore, as if seeking colder waters before being stranded in warmer climes–

Had it been merely washed ashore by an early winter storm–unlikely–or was it actually mowed down by hungry urchins?

Purple Urchins Grazing off of Nova Scotia
Karen Filbee-Dexter/ may be subject to copyright.
Urchins S. droebachiensis on scoured coralline algae

15. The invasion of purple sea urchins, now in abundance after the disappearance of their natural predators–crabs and starfish, as well as otters, has created an underwater lawnmower effect, as leaves of kelp beds are eaten with relish, including young plants before they start to grow from the near ocean floor. Lawnmowers barely capture what is like applications of Roundup, the herbicide tolerated in the United States, if targeted for elimination in Germany due to its toxicity: advancing populations of urchins eat through encrusted barnacles, calcified coralline algae on undersea the rocks, and eating through abalone shells as their jaws enlarge as calcite deposits in response to hunger, enabling them to eat otherwise inedible material, and “whose impact increases as their food supply diminishes.” Cynthia Catton, who has surveyed the effects of urchins on Northern California kelp populations since 2002, found urchins crowding on the ocean floor at over a dozen urchins per sq m with intact hardy appetites,–having already rendered barren plains; their removal must precede the restoration of lost kelp forests.

Did the mountains of seaweed washed ashore on the sandy beach, on Labor Day weekend, float ashore unmored from holdfasts and flat disks that once anchored them to the floor, unmoored by predatory urchins living on the ocean floor–were they cut from kelp forests by an army of purple urchins? For the expanding population of purple sea urchins attack algae at their base, effectively cutting entire plants loose from the ocean floor. The image of clear-cutting forests of redwoods returns, even if the algal seaweeds are not, strictly speaking, plants at all, but forests open to clear-cutting by urchin populations no longer constrained by natural predators as sea otters or starfish. (Forests near healthy populations of sea otters allow forests to absorb up to twelve times the CO2 as in areas with fewer or reduced otter populations . . . and luxuriant ecosystems of cascading ecological influences.)

It was deeply tragic surveying the stringy heaps of algae, Seaweed suggested possible food for early humans who seem to have migrated across the Bering Strait and down what would become known as the California coast. But the bulk of seaweed washed ashore, as if deracinated from holdfasts, suggested a shifting environment that was occurring under my yes.

The considerable historical decline of otter populations in the northern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska had already reduced the natural predators of urchins. But the arrival of dense populations of urchins on ocean floors have already created undersea deserts of deforestation: were these beds of seaweed, isolated on the shore, in fact the consequence of similarly mowed down kelp beds to create the sterility of deforested urchin barrens?

The tragic removal of huge bull kelp algae on the sands suggeted to an impressionable viewer the removal of undersea forests. Such barrens replace kelp forests with an increased density of urchins act as systemic barriers too ecological change or vegetation on the ocean floor. The decline or elimination of coastal beds of kelp, if not of kelp forests, is  predicted off the coasts of Denmark, France and southern England as early as the first half of the twenty-first century. Where the displaced bull kelp, its flotation bulb and its leaves of photosynthesis removed from the Pacific, after they had been individually severed from the fasteners that held them to the ocean floor by overplentiful urchin swarms?

California’s coast has already witnessed massive die-offs of giant algal groves of bull kelp forests that float to the surface of warming coastal waters, for not entirely known reasons, clearly tied to climate change; ballooning sea urchin populations of amazingly increased densities have erased much marine vegetation in parts of warmer oceans, where they stand to created barrens preventing vegetation or evolutionary change, in Hokkaido, in northern Japan, and in Australia and Tasmania. The appearance of these deracinated bull kelp severed from fasteners seem omens of a die-off of near coastal kelp, arriving on land in San Francisco beaches, unwillingly harvested from the near-coastal ocean.

The rapidity of the alteration of the environment and ecosystem is terrifyingly analogous to the rapid devastation of rain forests, as entire ecosystems are essentially burnt to the ground, with toleration of clearcutting the edges of Amazonia by lighting fires to “claim” once-forested lands, on the edges of the rainforest, in ways that stand to disrupt and damage its delicate habitat.

NASA Satellite Data/Washington Post
 Global Forest Watch/Real-Time Fire Tracker, September 2019

The growth of the study of seaweed in the mid-nineteenth century was, in part, begun at the edges of the scientific community, mostly by lone female scientists in outlying areas who called new attention and scrutiny to the biological roles and life-cycles of seaweed populations and species.

The return to the coast was a scientificized version of how plentiful coastal supplies of seaweed that attracted early human migrations to advance along shorelines, reconstruction of human migratory routes suggests–encouraged over successive generations by the copious availability of coastal seaweed supplies, in ways that echoed the status of the Pacific waters as feeding grounds:

even washed up kelp supplies could have led migrating generations along the coastal routes, providing needed nourishment and rationales for coastal settlement, together with the otters, seals and other species that evolved along the dulse-rich shorelines.

16. The density of such kelp forests–which in part help attract Pacific pinnipeds on their migration to California beaches–had earlier attracted the arrival of waves of early exploration of the coastal migration hypotheses that have been suggested as alternatives to what was long presumed a bridge route.

Bering Land Bridge as Human Migration Route/
National Geeographic Society

–although the migratory record was less of interest than possibilities to examine a lost biology, and excavate what seemed an earlier evolutionary time, as if a liquid living fossil record. The centrality of seaweed to human movements in the hypothesis of coastal migration emphasizes the deep embeddedness of kelp and algal abundance in local environments, and the historical centrality of kelp as a vector of causation in a very deep history indeed.

Of course, the isolation of the early scientific preservation and removal seaweed from oceanic habitat where they thrived was an expansion of knowledge and oceanic knowledge removed from the rationale of their aqueous environments, as if these records of the past were outliers, no longer playing an active role in the evolution of the environment or our own environments.

While not engravings or prints or framed strands on samplers, unfastened bull kelp that washes up on San Francisco beaches seems an odd reminder of the frozen images of seaweeds of the past, providing an eery reminder that seems to echo image of the drastic removal and devouring of bull kelp from off the Sonoma coast, in what has been called “the crash of the kelp forest,” analogous to the disappearance of kelp from the coast of Tasmania in the early 2000s, and the disappearance of Hokkaido kelp that has been replaced by urchin barrens.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Images perpetuated a paradoxically frozen image of seaweed specimens that removed them from growth and variety as a frozen biological past, and as an imagined point of access to a frozen past, seaweed was an opportunity for biological time travel, rarely mapped as a habitat or as encouraging habitat, evident in the rare protected offshore coastal areas of marine preserves on offshore islands where, far from beaches, seaweed populate rocky coasts.

Mazzaella Oregona on rocks, on Point Reyes National Seashore

For the expansive kelp forest parallels preserved in the protected parts o the Northern California coast, where once-extensive coastal kelp forests have long attracted the annual migration of Pacific pelagic to feeding grounds. But it is itself rarely mapped for some time as a living part of its environment, or was until the recent shock of a decline of the underwater forests in warming waters, and the sudden realization of the instability of these forests as fertile feeding grounds as a potential casualty of climate change.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

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