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Long-term changes in kelp forests in an inner basin of the Salish Sea

February 17, 2021

Kelp forests form an important biogenic habitat that responds to natural and human drivers. Global concerns exist about threats to kelp forests, yet long-term information is limited and research suggests that trends are geographically distinct. We examined distribution of the bull kelp Nereocystis luetkeana over 145 years in South Puget Sound (SPS), a semi-protected inner basin in a fjord estuary complex in the northeast Pacific Ocean. We synthesized 48 historical and modern Nereocystis surveys and examined presence/absence within 1-km segments along 452 km of shoreline. Compared to the earliest baseline in 1878, Nereocystis extent in 2017 decreased 63%, with individual sub-basins showing up to 96% loss. Losses have persisted for decades, across a range of climate conditions. In recent decades, Nereocystis predominantly occurred along shorelines with intense currents and mixing, where temperature and nutrient concentrations did not reach thresholds for impacts to Nereocystis performance, and high current speeds likely excluded grazers. Losses predominated in areas with elevated temperature, lower nutrient concentrations, and relatively low current velocities. The pattern of long-term losses in SPS contrasts with stability in floating kelp abundance during the last century in an area of the Salish Sea with greater wave exposure and proximity to oceanic conditions. These findings support the hypothesis that kelp beds along wave-sheltered shorelines exhibit greater sensitivity to environmental stressors. Additionally, shorelines with strong currents and deep-water mixing may provide refugia within sheltered systems.