Biobank Led by Simon Fraser University Aims to Preserve West Coast Kelp Forests for Future Generations

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

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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.” 

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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) and Sherryl Bisgrove are 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 percent 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.

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.

“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.”

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.”

(Featured video credit: Simon Fraser University)