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Simon Fraser University-led biobank aims to save west coast kelp forests

September 29, 2022

Scientists at Simon Fraser University are racing against the clock to save British Columbia’s disappearing kelp forests for future generations.

Led by biologist Sherryl Bisgrove, and supported by the Pacific Salmon Foundation, the team has developed a cryogenic freezing technique to store germplasm, or “seed”, of at-risk bull kelp in a biobank.

This allows the team, which also includes postdoctoral fellow Liam Coleman and lab manager Silven Read, to preserve the local biodiversity of the species in case some populations become extinct off coastal waters.

The collection of “seed” could be used to aid restoration efforts and advance research projects such as identifying kelp populations that may be better suited to survive in the warmer waters expected with climate change.

“As climate change progresses, we’re going to lose populations of kelp. And when we lose populations of kelp, we lose genetic diversity and stand to lose the kelp forests irretrievably,” says Bisgrove, associate professor of biology at SFU. “Once they’re gone, we won’t be able to get them back. So, the goal of this project is to save as much of the genetic diversity as we can, so we can use it for restoration efforts in the future.”

Kelp at risk
Researchers warn that the loss of kelp forests due to warming temperatures can be sudden and catastrophic.

Fisherman and recreational users, such as divers and kayakers, have anecdotally noticed kelp forests shrinking or disappearing altogether from the coast, and studies have shown weather-related events like the 2017 marine heatwave (known as the “blob”) and last year’s heat dome can do permanent harm to kelp forests, which thrive in colder water.

Warming ocean temperatures also bring with it sea urchins, which devour kelp.

“When we lose kelp forests, we lose the very foundations of the ecosystem in the sea,” says Bisgrove. “They provide homes, habitat, protection, and food for a myriad of other species in the ocean.”

Wild salmon, already facing numerous risks, are one of the species that depend on kelp forests for their survival, which is why the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF) is supporting Bisgrove’s project.

 “Kelp forests are a critical habitat for salmon providing protection and food resources,” says Isobel Pearsall, director of PSF’s Marine Science Program. “Given the speed with which some local kelp populations are declining, it is imperative that action be taken swiftly to protect these important organisms before they are lost forever.”

Researchers point to Australia as an example of how fast kelp can disappear. The continent has lost up to 95 per cent of its kelp forests in some areas within 80 years, spurring urgent restoration efforts.

Bisgrove’s team is trying to prepare B.C. for similar efforts.

“It’s so important to save kelp,” says Read. “Just one species has such an amazing, really huge impact on our lives that we may not be aware of. If we lose kelp, we’re going to start losing salmon, we start losing herring, we’re going to start losing water quality and shoreline.”

The biobank
They see the biobank as a seed bank for kelp, where eventually government, environmental organizations, kelp farmers and even community groups can access samples resilient to climate change and reintroduce them into coastal waters.

“Our biobank is designed to store millions of kelp samples, compared to the current methods of long-term storage of only a few hundred or a few thousand,” says Read.

“We think that is essential in being able to store many more species and many more individuals of each species that our lab is researching.”

“We’ve taken great strides in developing a novel cryopreservation technique that we would use to store our kelp germplasm, which you can think of as being like our kelp seed,” says Coleman. “Hopefully, we can then – possibly decades from now – bring out a sample that we’ve put into cryo and it’ll be in virtually the same state as when we put it in, and use that culture to repopulate forests.”

Enchanted forests
Keeping kelp forests alive isn’t just a scientific endeavour for the team, which consists of proud west coasters.

It’s also personal.

Coleman, for example, is an avid scuba diver and believes B.C.’s kelp forests are unique in the world and need to be seen to be believed.

“Scuba diving in a kelp forest is a really magical experience,” he says. “Once you get past the shock of the water being a bit colder than maybe you were hoping for, it’s like being in an enchanted forest. The water is a lovely greenish colour and when the sun is out you can swim under this canopy of bull kelp, look up and see all these golden blades dangling down as sunbeams permeate through them. There’s so much life. It’s like walking through the most beautiful forest you can imagine, only you’re underwater."

Next steps
While the team has developed a successful cryopreservation technique, the project needs to find funding for a permanent facility for the biobank to become a viable community asset.

“We’re currently storing samples in our lab at SFU, so if we could establish a facility, we can start storing the bull kelp we have now and create future plans to extend the biobank to include many other coastal species,” says Bisgrove. “There are so many species of seaweeds and seagrasses that are also really important economically and for habitats on the coast.”

The SFU kelp biobank research project is a partnership between the Pacific Foundation and Mitacs Accelerate.

The Pacific Salmon Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wild Pacific salmon and their habitats in B.C. and the Yukon.

Mitacs Accelerate is Canada’s premiere research internship program. It connects companies with over 50 research-based universities through graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who apply their specialized expertise to business challenges. Interns transfer their skills from theory to real-world application, while the companies gain a competitive advantage by accessing high-quality research expertise.