Carbon positivity begins with balance
Balance is a requisite for a healthy planet, and few people think about this as often as Kevin Whilden, co-founder and executive director of SeaTrees/Sustainable Surf, Scout partner and organization dedicated to protecting and restoring ocean health.
“Blue carbon is one of the most important and underutilized ways to fight climate change,” says Whilden. “It's the fastest way to get carbon from the atmosphere into the ocean where it needs to go. It's five to ten times faster at sequestering carbon than any other ecosystem out there.”
The wave surfing entrepreneurial geologist’s claims aren’t just anecdotal: over 90 percent of carbon is stored in the ocean, and both underwater and coastal ecosystems have been shown to sequester more carbon per unit area than any terrestrial forests—a significant realization when understanding that 71 percent of the earth’s surface is water-covered.
The immediate images that are drawn when discussing coastal ecosystems are of mangroves and ecosystems that can be seen from land, but Whilden believes that the focus needs to run deeper.
“What we have to do to solve climate change is get really smart about how the earth naturally removes CO2 from the atmosphere,” says Whilden. “Kelp is the fastest growing plant in the world. It can grow 2 feet per day, and 11 percent of that growth every year is sequestered in the deep ocean as carbon. This makes kelp forests one of the very best ecosystems to help fight climate change. That's why we have to bring it back.”
In 2019, Sustainable Surf launched a project called SeaTrees, an ocean positive project committed to providing financial support to regenerative ocean projects. Whilden and his team recognized that kelp reforestation efforts were being overlooked due to the lack of methodology for measuring carbon offsets, pushing them to step in and find new ways to support these efforts.
Shortly after launching, a kelp reforestation initiative in Palos Verdes, California managed by The Bay Foundation was nearing a halt as funding began to dry. SeaTrees identified this as the perfect opportunity to step in and make a difference.
Kelp reforestation isn’t just about planting and protecting kelp, it is about restoring balance. Kelp forests in Palos Verdes and much of California are collapsing rapidly because of an overabundance of an unsuspecting underwater predator: sea urchins.
Sea urchins play a vital role in a kelp forest. They crawl on the bottom of the ocean floor, consuming fallen pieces of broken kelp, breaking it down into smaller pieces, and aiding in decomposition—similar to that of a mushroom in a terrestrial forest. However, when the population is left unchecked with the disappearance of both predators and competitors, the urchins create barrens where the kelp forest once was, leaving thousands of urchins covering the reef.
When this happens, the sea urchins’ role in the ocean changes drastically. As the population expands, the urchins begin eating living kelp until the forests have been completely wiped out, and when the kelp has been wiped out the life of an urchin becomes rather grim.
“When the population gets too big they eat all the kelp, the urchins can go into a zombie-like state for 50 to 100 years,” explains Whilden. “The kelp can never reestablish amidst the urchin barrens where you have up to 100 urchins per square meter, just sitting there waiting for any kelp to reestablish. If it does, it gets munched before it can grow.”
The zombie-like state Whilden refers to results from starvation within the urchin population. The salty protein pouches inside of a sea urchin, found in fish markets and sushi shops, are actually the organism’s gonads. However, when these organisms become nutrient-depleted, their gonads shrivel up, making them useless to their predators, such as lobsters and sea otters, resulting in an increased population of starving, zombie-like urchins.
“The way to fix that is by sending a diver down with a rock hammer and having them smash the urchins,” explains Whilden. “It may sound kind of gruesome, but it restores balance to the ecosystem. Those urchins are already starving, they are not living a good life. The idea is once you restore that balance, the extraordinary kelp forests can re-establish with a healthy urchin population. Because kelp grows so fast, it takes less than one year for a fully mature kelp forest to grow on the reef.”
Kelp has a major impact on biodiversity within these ecosystems. Once the kelp comes back, forests come back to full maturity within a year, meaning the return to a vibrant diversity of species and an ecosystem supporting upwards of 700 species of plants and animals. These ecosystem balancing tactics can have a lasting impact as well.
“The project here in Palos Verdes has been running for five years and the forests that they brought back, in the beginning, are still thriving,” says Whilden. “It's proof that you really can restore balance in the ecosystem.”
When SeaTrees first partnered with The Bay Foundation in 2019, grant funding was drying out. The support that SeaTrees provided allowed the project to sustain. Now as they head deeper into 2021, SeaTrees is pushing further than before, quadrupling funding for the project as a result of generosity and support from individuals and companies like Scout.
This idea of pushing an initiative beyond expectations, rather than sustaining progress, fits directly within the Sustainable Surf ethos. The organization uses a term called “ocean positive” as a way of expressing that being carbon neutral isn’t enough and that we must sequester more carbon than is emitted. The organization is seeking out new projects, but the impact is all predicated on the funding that they are actively seeking from both individuals and companies.
“A lot of companies will say 'I'm going to measure our carbon footprint and go carbon neutral,' but it's too late to just go carbon neutral,” says Whilden. “We have to actually take out what we've emitted if we're really going to have any hope of solving climate change. It's past the tipping point.
So unless we actually take out more than we emit, we actually can't solve the problem. What’s great is that we can do it if, in parallel to reducing our own emissions, we actually enhance natural sequestration. Through photosynthesis, through the action of plants that grow on land and the ocean, we can take out more than we emit.
"We can be ocean positive.”