What It’s Like to Document California’s Disappearing Kelp Forests

Documentary filmmaker Tyler Schiffman turns his camera onto the people rushing to save a marine ecosystem on the verge of collapse.

In the summer of 2022, documentary videographer Tyler Schiffman set out to capture an ecosystem that is rapidly fading away. Commissioned to create a short film on California’s struggling underwater kelp forests for The Nature Conservancy’s quarterly magazine, Schiffman knew where to start. Growing up surfing and eventually spear-fishing on the West Coast, he’d seen the collapse firsthand.

Tyler Schiffman and crew capture video of a tub of purple urchins that have been harvested from the ocean. The purple urchin population has exploded in recent years as its nemesis, the sunflower sea star, has struggled. © Tyler Schiffman

“My whole career has really sparked from this story since I was a little kid,” he says.

“Surfing, I would always get caught in the kelp. I hated it, but I was a young kid. I didn’t understand,” he says. “And then I started snorkeling around and seeing what was underneath the surface. That showed me all the different wildlife. And then, as soon as I started to see this, the ecosystem that I love so much just disappeared before my eyes.”

What Schiffman witnessed growing up—and later came to document—was the rapid decline of California’s underwater kelp ecosystems. Certain types of kelp (itself a type of seaweed) can reach more than 100 feet tall, forming giant underwater forests home to a sprawling array of marine life.

In the past decade though, some 96% of Northern California’s kelp forest has disappeared, leaving scientists and conservationists rushing to protect and restore it. Their work has focused on a variety of avenues from removing some of the purple sea urchins that eat the kelp to helping boost the sunflower sea star population (a natural sea urchin predator).

Schiffman set out to document their work. He had already made several previous films examining the issue. For this documentary he took his camera underwater to film the remaining ecosystem. (His crew lucked out and had incredible visibility, he says.) On land, he interviewed those working to help protect the kelp, including a commercial sea urchin diver.

“The hardest part is this story is so convoluted and there’s so many elements from the sea stars to a giant warmwater blob to the different types of urchins,” he says. “But it’s pressing and it’s important because the kelp ecosystem is so important. But it’s already disappearing and that’s a scary sight.”

Tyler Schiffman uses a specialty lens to get a macro close up of purple urchin. © Tyler Schiffman

A version of this story ran in Nature Conservancy magazine’s summer issue. Learn more about how scientists, conservationists and fishers are trying to help these underwaters forests—and watch Schiffman’s documentary—at nature.org/magazine.

While Schiffman created a short documentary on the conservationists’ work, two still photographers captured images of that work too. Oregon-based wildlife photographer Morgan Heim documented how researchers working at a lab off the coast of Washington state are studying how to better breed sunflower sea stars, which act as natural predators for the kelp-consuming purple sea urchins. And California-based photographer Ralph Pace captured the state of California’s kelp forests right now. Here are outtakes from their work.

Dead kelp washes up on a beach in California. © Ralph Pace
An urchin diver smashes purple urchins on the sea floor off the coast of California. Other techniques urchin divers use include vacuuming up purple sea urchins or setting traps for them. © Ralph Pace
At Friday Harbor Laboratories, a University of Washington facility on San Juan Island, a researcher examines a growing sunflower sea star. The lab, in a partnership between the university and The Nature Conservancy, is raising sea stars and studying their growth in hopes of eventually reintroducing the struggling sea stars to the wild. © Morgan Heim
Research assistant Fiona Curliss prepares tubs for the growing sea stars. Sunflower sea stars grow from a size visible only under a microscope to adults up to 1 meter across. After a recent review, NOAA has proposed listing the sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List. © Morgan Heim
In the wild, healthy sunflower sea stars are key predators in the underwater kelp forests. When the ecosystem is in balance, sunflower sea stars and otters keep the urchin population in check and limiting the kelp they consume. © Morgan Heim
Despite the rapid decline of the Northern California kelp forests, there still are swathes of healthy habitats that remain. © Ralph Pace

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