Channel Islands National Park-Kelp Forest Monitoring

After discovering I had been chosen as the 2010 Our World Underwater Scholarship Society National Park Service Intern, the long planning process began.  Phone calls, emails, and paperwork flew as I rushed to get applications, gear, funding, and logistics squared away for my summer adventure.

Finally it all began with a four day long Kelp Forest Monitoring (KFM) trip at my home park, Channel Islands National Park.  The Kelp Forest Monitoring Program is the longest established monitoring program in the National Park Service and has taken inventory of the kelp forests around the Channel Islands since 1982. 

The KFM crew surveys each of the program’s 33 sites around the five northern Channel Islands once a year using up to 11 different monitoring techniques to determine the health and status of the kelp forest ecosystem within Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary. Sixteen of the KFM sites were established between 1982 and 1986. An additional 16 sites were established in 2005 to be able to compare differences inside and adjacent to four of the new Marine Protected Areas that were designated in 2003.  

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are specific zones where it is prohibited or restricted to take marine life.  These zones are created to serve as nurseries and sanctuaries for species that are often subject to commercial or recreational fisheries and to protect natural ocean resources for future generations.   The Channel Islands National Park has been an excellent example of ocean stewardship with their enforcement and monitoring of these protected areas.  To learn more about Marine Protected Areas at the Channel Islands visit

Data collected from the Kelp Forest Monitoring program has been useful in understanding kelp forest ecosystem changes and some of the impacts of harvesting marine species. The National Park Service KFM program  has found that certain species targeted for fishing, such as lobsters, sea cucumbers, sheephead, red urchins, and kelp bass, are larger and more abundant inside the MPAs than outside in areas where fishing is allowed.  The MPAs encompass approximately 20% of park waters, which means that fishing is allowed in 80% of the park.

Within the four days we surveyed four sites, “Graveyard Canyon,” “Southeast Sea Lion,” and, “Southeast Reef” at Santa Barbara Island and “Landing Cove” at Anacapa Island.  All of the monitoring sites are marked by permanent 100 meter transects made of weighted nylon line which are bolted to the bedrock so that they can be easily relocated each year.

To monitor each site, a 100 meter measuring tape is rolled out along the permanent line. Divers complete their work within 10 meters on each side of the meter tape. Different techniques are used to assess the abundance and distribution of target species. Methods include the use of band transects, random point contacts, videotaped transects, size frequency measurements, roving diver fish counts,  1 meter and 5 meter quadrats.

Mainly, I conducted roving diver fish counts, 5 meter quadrat surveys, and size frequencies for urchins and giant kelp.  Roving diver fish counts consist of swimming along the transect line for 30 minutes counting every fish seen and recording it on a slate. During 5 meter quadrat surveys I counted the number of giant spined stars, adult and subadult species of giant brown kelp and an invasive species of Sargassum from Asia  that were located within 1 meter of the transect line. For size frequencies I measured urchin test diameters with calipers and giant kelp base (holdfasts) diameters with a meter stick in addition to counting the number of kelp stipes or “stems.”

I found that as a researcher, it is absolutely crucial to be able to identify species accurately because if a mistake is made, it not only affects the data for that year, but also the entire 28 year data set that continues to grow each year. This means a day’s work didn’t just end with diving. Each evening after collecting data the crew meticulously went over the data sheets, verified counts, and clarified any potential species misidentification. We even went on a dive specifically to catch a juvenile “mystery fish” that was difficult to identify underwater.

David Kushner, lead marine biologist, only selects experienced divers since they may be doing up to six dives a day in conditions that are often cold and surging with low visibility.  At Santa Barbara Island in a moderate surge I found myself clinging to rocks as I tried to measure holdfasts with my meter stick underwater.  Also, the 54°F water at Anacapa Island Landing Cove left me shivering in my two piece 7mm wetsuit. Some of the crew doubled up on gloves, hoods, and wore vests under their suits for extra insulation during their long cold dives.

This trip gave me my first taste of research diving and gave insight into the experience required to identify species, tolerate difficult diving conditions while conducting research simultaneously, and to be part of a boat crew. Thanks to researchers David Kushner, Kelly Moore, Sonia Ibarra, Josh Sprague, Eric Mooney, Stephan Whitaker, James Grunden and boat captain / diver Keith Duran.


3 thoughts on “Channel Islands National Park-Kelp Forest Monitoring

  1. Dave Begun

    Great post about KFM Brie. We’re all looking forward to hearing about your experiences at Lake Mead.


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