California’s kelp forests are dying. Preservation is not the only way to save them.

Muhleman is a professional sport fisherman and volunteer environmental activist with The Nature Conservancy and the American Conservation Coalition. He lives in San Diego.

I grew up on the ocean with my dad, who was a charter fisherman here in San Diego for over 20 years. Now in my fifth year of sport fishing, I am part of the largest sport fishing fleet in the world. San Diego has been a world-class fishing destination since before World War II. Unfortunately, this legacy is not guaranteed for the next generation.

My father remembers the vast kelp forests off the Coronado Islands, and old maps around my childhood home confirm their once grand size. I have personally witnessed the loss of kelp forests off Imperial Beach. We cannot allow this pattern of disappearance to continue. Not only is the kelp forest an important part of the ecosystem, but it is responsible for a significant amount of CO2 sequestration.

California has regulated harvesting kelp under the Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly the Department of Fish and Game) for over 100 years. The current regulatory framework takes a preservationist approach. Yet the area of ​​kelp forest has shrunk due to a combination of silt from agriculture, sea urchin blooms, and abnormally high ocean temperatures. And California lost 90 percent from its coastal wetlands to urbanization. This is why the answer is not 100% preservation or 100% privatization.

Currently, the most at-risk forest areas are closed to all harvesting in an effort to preserve what remains of kelp. However, this solution fails to keep up with the growing number of science of natural climate solutions and strategies that could reseed and regrow our kelp forests. Efforts focused on reseeding without considering commercial opportunities are short-sighted. To truly protect the environment, we must adapt to work with the environment, not chain it.

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Strategies that rely solely on preservation also fail to recognize the incredible economic opportunity for me and the next generation of San Diegans. Mine is particularly concentrated on tackling climate change in our work and careers. Follow the science is the best way to both protect the environment and reap its economic benefits for Gen Z and beyond.

Kelp is a real cash crop with huge environmental benefits. The cultivation process is simple and requires no fertilizer, fresh water or soil. And kelp is useful in all kinds of foods, not just at the leaf stage, but through extracted nutrients like algin, found in gels, cakes, puddings, milkshakes, pie fillings, dairy products, frozen foods, salad dressings and my favorite: beer. There are many other uses, from textiles to pharmaceuticals to some paints, and even some evidence this kelp could be used as a powerful biofuel.

groups like Kelp Blue have stepped up global planting efforts in places like Namibia in southern Africa with the aim of restoring the ocean while creating economic opportunity from regrowing kelp. Not only do they provide high quality jobs to local communities and inject money into the local economy, but they also restore a vital resource of blue carbon that will help mitigate the effects of climate change. Similar efforts have been discussed in California, and preliminary research efforts are underway in several California universities.

One idea that local and state policy makers should consider is limited leasing of specific ocean areas for kelp regrowth and limited harvest. Renting as a strategy allows scientists to create guidelines for collaborative and strategic partnerships, working with companies like Kelp Blue to regrow kelp forests. Public-private partnerships help ensure that both sectors take a science-based approach to projects and use government resources efficiently.

As a San Diego native, I think restoring our kelp forests and protecting our coastlines is the most important issue facing Californians today. Losing our kelp forests would mean environmental collapse, but the good news is that we have plenty of scientific advice to put us on the right track. We have the solutions we need to act now, update our regulatory framework and protect our environment, our culture and our livelihoods.

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