Fast-growing kelp invades SF Bay

SAN FRANCISCO — A fast-growing kelp from the Far East has spread along the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco Bay, worrying marine scientists and outpacing eradication efforts.

In May, scientists for the first time found the invasive seaweed called Undaria pinnatifida clinging to docks at a yacht harbor in San Francisco Bay, fouling boat hulls and pier pilings.

"I was walking in San Francisco Marina, and that's when I saw the kelp attached to a boat," said Chela Zabin, a biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Tiburon.

"I didn't want to believe what it was, it's depressing," Zabin said.

Before Zabin's discovery, ocean scientists believed the northward spread of the invasive kelp had been stopped at Monterey Bay. But last year, federal funding used to buy equipment for volunteer divers dried up, reducing the number of people working on eradication.

The seaweed was discovered in Los Angeles Harbor in 2000.

A year later, the kelp, which can grow an inch a day as it creates dense underwater forests, showed up at Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles coastline, and Monterey Bay.

Studies have concluded that the kelp likely was introduced to California by accidental transport on shipments of oysters, vessel hulls and people who cultivated it in the region for cooking.

On Thursday, four divers spent hours at Pier 40 on Fisherman's Wharf peeling pieces of kelp off docks, yachts and pier pilings. But few believe the effort removed all traces of the seaweed. Scientists will be checking monthly for signs of further spread.

"On any invasion, the window of opportunity to successfully eradicate that species is usually narrow," said Steve Lonhart, one of the divers and a senior scientist with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The seaweed concerns marine biologists because it can damage fragile ocean ecosystems by choking off the sunlight needed by native kelps. The native kelp forests provide key habitat for otters, fish and other marine life.

The seaweed spreads by releasing millions of spores that are dispersed by currents and can travel miles. While it is native to Japan, China and Korea, studies have found the kelp in the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Coast of Europe, New Zealand and Argentina.

"If it's restricted to two docks in the marinas in San Francisco Bay, we'll have a chance," Zabin said. "If it's spread beyond those places, it may be a lost cause."

Because of its wide range, it has been nominated as among 100 of the world's worst invaders, according to the Global Invasive Species Database.