Researching the health of kelp forests in the Great Southern Reef
Original Published Date: 
Friday, June 11, 2021

Full article issued by The University of Western Australia.

A team of ARC-supported researchers at The University of Western Australia, led by Professor Thomas Wernberg, is working to restore kelp forests that were devastated by a 2011 heatwave.

Large brown seaweeds, kelp are some of the fastest growing plants on the planet. They dominate temperate, coastal rocky shores worldwide, where they create 3-dimensional structure under water, providing a habitat for many species of fish, invertebrates and algae, while capturing and storing nutrients and atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Kelp forests in Australia dominate an interconnected ecosystem of temperate rocky reefs stretching 8,000kms around the southern coastline of Australia, from the mid-west coast of Western Australia, along South Australia and Tasmania, and up along the east coast to the northern border of New South Wales.

Dubbed the 'Great Southern Reef', kelp forests' importance for Australia's underwater ecosystems, and it's susceptibility to climate change, was highlighted by research led by Dr Scott Bennett, now an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awardee at the University of Tasmania. In August 2012, the Australian giant kelp forests became the first marine community to be listed as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This was hot on the heals of a devastating heatwave in 2011 that wiped out 385km2 of kelp forest, much of which is still struggling to recover. 

Professor Wernberg's team, in co-collaboration with scientists at the Institute of Marine Research in Norway, is now investigating methods to restore these damaged kelp forests using 'green gravel' that has been seeded with baby kelp plants. The plants can be easily sown from a boat, and once in the ocean, some kelp species can reach full canopy height in about one year. The project has gained international recognition, and the team now lead the Green Gravel Action Group, whose mission is to provide a broadly available and scalable solution to restore blue forests, using green gravel.

Photo credit: 

Professor Thomas Wernberg measuring the health of kelp forests in the Great Southern Reef. Credit: Albert Pessarrodona.