The Lincoln Park forest you’ve probably never seen, why it matters, and how it figures into plans to save forests like it

(Image from 2020 video of Lincoln Park’s kelp forest by “Diver Laura” James)

By Sean Golonka
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

There is more than one large forest at Lincoln Park. But for people visiting the West Seattle treasure, the
“other” forest cannot be seen on a typical hike.

Take a walk along the park’s north shore and you may see signs of the other forest — brown bulbs and blades intermingling with the surface of the water — but to really explore it, you’ll likely need diving gear.

Beneath the water off Lincoln Park sits a large kelp bed, one that is thriving relative to other similar kelp and eelgrass beds around Puget Sound. Much like how the forest on the land at Lincoln Park is filled with various creatures, the kelp bed is a marine habitat that’s home to myriad species of aquatic animals.

Lincoln Park’s kelp forest is part of the thousands of acres of kelp and eelgrass beds that have long served as vital aquatic ecosystems across the waters in and around Puget Sound and Washington’s other coasts. But, like the state’s forests above ground, these underwater forests have been shrinking for decades.

Even as Lincoln Park’s kelp bed has stood out as a success story, with the small forest that runs along the park’s north shore remaining present in recent years, similar beds in other parts of central Puget Sound, including those outside Bainbridge Island and Vashon Island, have significantly dwindled or disappeared entirely.

Spurred by these plants’ steep losses — historical studies indicate that floating kelp has disappeared from approximately 80% of shorelines in central and south Puget Sound over the past 100-plus years — local groups and state leaders are taking action to reverse course.

In 2022, state lawmakers passed a law to establish a plan to protect or restore at least 10,000 acres of kelp forests and eelgrass meadows by 2040. While scientists are still working to better understand the patterns of decline, the state is underway with its Kelp and Eelgrass Health and Conservation Plan, including collecting data on kelp forests and identifying priority areas for conservation.

The statewide plan builds on a 2020 regional kelp recovery plan developed by local conservation groups and government agencies and focused specifically on kelp management in Puget Sound. The plan includes goals to better understand stressors leading to kelp population decline, describe kelp distribution trends, and designate areas to protect and restore lost forests.

“The [regional] kelp plan itself was really catalytic, I would say, and the following legislation is big and bold and aspirational,” said Jodie Toft, deputy director at the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a local nonprofit that works to restore marine habitats, water quality, and native species in the area. “It’s great to kind of draw that line in the sand and say, ‘We are going to hold ourselves accountable to conserve and restore 10,000 acres of kelp and eelgrass by 2040.’ Big goal.”

Despite the long timetable, these plans are well underway. In a fall 2023 progress update on the regional plan, authors with the Northwest Straits Commission, a marine conservation group, highlighted significant progress toward better understanding kelp trends and promoting awareness of and engagement with the issue.

Still, the update highlights shortcomings in some efforts to understand kelp stressors and establish protections for kelp beds. There is still much unknown about these forests, particularly about what factors have led to significant population decreases. Current plans focus on monitoring and data collection to determine where kelp beds are and where they’re in decline.

Though the state’s initial priority areas for monitoring — aquatic sub-basins in south Puget Sound, Eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Grays Harbor — do not include West Seattle’s kelp forest, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund is pursuing monitoring in waters off Lincoln Park.

(Image from 2020 video of Lincoln Park’s kelp forest by “Diver Laura” James)

As part of its Eyes on Kelp program, the group is seeking to develop a robust monitoring network with index sites across Puget Sound, including at Lincoln Park, to measure environmental parameters and track any habitat changes. This data will help shape how ecologists’ respond to kelp loss.

Toft noted that the group finally has acquired permits to set up equipment in the water outside Lincoln Park and “the earliest that that would happen would be this fall,” as the group works with fish windows and other schedules.

She said the group is curious about the conditions at Lincoln Park because the kelp bed there is faring significantly better than at other locations in central Puget Sound.

Unlike at some other local destinations that have seen kelp disappear entirely, such as at Bainbridge Island, the kelp bed at Lincoln Park has held steady in more recent years. Understanding why is among the research goals for local conservation groups.

Essential ecosystems

Washington is home to 22 species of native kelp, making it one of the most diverse areas in the world for this type of large brown algae.

These underwater forests are an essential part of marine ecosystems, serving as a home and food for a variety of other species, such as black rockfish and urchins. Kelp beds are also among the key vital signs for the health of the Puget Sound environment. They are a foundational species, also key to orcas and fueling the local food web, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Since time immemorial, local tribes have relied on kelp. From fishing and harvesting roe to various household and playful uses, it has been an important economic and cultural resource for Coast Salish peoples.

Kelp also plays a key role in protecting the climate by storing excess carbon to a degree that rivals tropical rainforests.

There are two major categories of kelp: canopy-forming kelp, which is more easily seen and better studied, and understory kelp, which is more abundant and diverse but comparatively understudied.

One of the most recognizable species, bull kelp, is the kind found outside Lincoln Park. These annually growing kelp span from the seafloor to the water’s surface, emerging each spring with air filled bulbs that hold the plant upright. They can grow as much as two feet per day.

Alongside kelp, there are approximately 55,000 acres of eelgrass across Puget Sound.

But even as the Lincoln Park forest has been a figurative bright spot in the region, kelp have been dying globally.

“About five or six years ago, I would say the alarm was raised for canopy kelp in general along the West Coast because there was a massive loss of bull kelp forests along the coast of Northern California, like 90-plus percent of loss,” Toft said.

She was referring to the so-called “blob,” an intense marine heatwave in the mid 2010s that killed vast amounts of kelp in the Pacific Ocean.

“Then there’s the ripple effects as well,” Toft said about the kelp loss. “Those ripple effects were certainly felt in Puget Sound, and it made it a lot easier for the kelp conservation and restoration community to kind of daylight the challenges and the loss that we were having in Puget Sound.”

With these plants threatened, state leaders have similarly raised the alarm for taking action.

“We are witnessing a precipitous decline in kelp and eelgrass throughout Puget Sound,“ Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, said in a statement in 2022 announcing the state’s first “protection zone” for kelp and eelgrass through the preservation of 2,300 acres at the mouth of the Snohomish River.

While scientists have not determined a specific reason for population losses, they have pointed to several possible reasons, including global warming and pollution.

“Because kelp is a cold water species, climate warming is expected to have major future impacts,” according to DNR.

The department also notes that kelp are affected by human influences, such as “sewage and other runoff that decrease water quality and reduce light in the water column.” They can even “be physically damaged by boat propellers and fishing gear.”

The ongoing data collection efforts are critical for understanding how environmental conditions are affecting kelp health. Even in recent history, there has been a disparity in the types of data collected.

Take, for example, the state’s Puget Sound Vital Signs monitoring system, which compiles data on the conditions of the region’s environment and ecosystem. The data includes an indicator for floating kelp beds that show the plant in decline regionally, with especially significant losses in Central and south Puget Sound. For understory kelp, there is no such data available yet.

Under DNR’s kelp monitoring program, the state does not yet have enough data collected on the kelp bed at Lincoln Park (state graphic above) to establish a trend, though the four years of data available show relative consistency in the size of the bed area.

“Having continuous data on environmental variables is really important because we want to be able to understand a bit more about what kelp, at different times in its lifecycle, what it’s experiencing in the water, down at the bottom and then up at the surface,” Toft said.

She added that a key question in the conservation community is, “Do we actively work to restore populations without understanding the stressors that lead to their decline?”

So far, local groups have balanced continued efforts to collect data on kelp with researching ways to protect and restore the plants.

Restoration efforts

While conservation will be key to protecting existing kelp forests, such as those at Lincoln Park and along the state’s Pacific Coast, the kelp health plans also call for restoration — critical for some areas of south and Central Puget Sound where kelp beds have disappeared entirely.

Toft said that for years her group and others have been “tinkering with kelp restoration,” finding that some solutions — such as transferring kelp reproductive material or moving adult kelp plants into a new area — have not worked.

Successful restoration efforts have involved inserting lab-grown kelp onto special cords that are then attached to the seafloor and allowed to grow into full kelp plants.

“The little tiny kelp seeds that are on that twine then grow up to be these full, giant, mature bull kelp plants,” Toft said, noting the practice is now in its fifth year in place. “In those four years, each year, we’ve been able to successfully regrow bull kelp from sea floor to surface, reestablishing that curtain of bulk kelp that hasn’t been present in that area since the ’90s.”

(Port of Seattle photo)

Toft said there is a long way to go to a goal of ensuring the plant regrows itself each year rather than requiring replanting annually.

She also noted Lincoln Park will be an interesting case to study because of disparities in kelp health on the eastern and western sides of central Puget Sound. Unlike the western side, where places such as Bainbridge Island and Vashon Island have seen total or significant kelp loss, the beds along the eastern side, such as at Lincoln Park, have remained more steady.

“What can we learn about what our kelp need in central Puget Sound by comparing environmental data from each side of the sound?” she said.

But as the Puget Sound Restoration Fund aims to get monitoring equipment set up outside Lincoln Park later this year, there is a lot to still understand about the health of the kelp bed there.

Toft noted that at Lincoln Park there are some positive factors — a good “land-sea connection” between the water and park — and some negative, such as it being “right off a pretty urbanized part of central Puget Sound,” which presents “challenges with water quality, when we get big storms and we see combined sewer overflows.”

As the local kelp there is studied further, Toft described Lincoln Park’s success as something to take pride in.

“It’s a gem, and people in West Seattle should get out there and and be pretty proud that they have not just a beautiful park right there with an awesome troll with abalone shells on it, but they should also be excited that they have a nice marine forest that’s doing pretty well right there at their doorstep,” Toft said.

15 Replies to "The Lincoln Park forest you've probably never seen, why it matters, and how it figures into plans to save forests like it"

  • Highland Park March 25, 2024 (12:32 am)

    Can’t say enough about how much I appreciate all the efforts put towards regrowing the kelp beds. 

    • Patty April 12, 2024 (9:45 pm)

      Yes! Agreed 🙌

  • John March 25, 2024 (6:06 am)

    I’m really happy to see these efforts! Was my understanding that a major factor was the sea star die off especially the sunflower sea star which eat sea urchins and sea urchins eat kelp so the sea urchin population has spiked having a pretty negative impact on the kelp forests. And I’ve even seen a decline in the amount since I was a kid I remember almost every time I’d go down to the beach I’d find what I call day “bull whip” (large strand of kelp) and I rarely see them asuch as I used to 

  • Steve March 25, 2024 (8:02 am)

    What a fascinating and informative article!

    • Daniel March 25, 2024 (10:16 am)

      That was a great read.  And normally I don’t like that kind of title (nearing clickbait), but this time I enjoyed the mental tick of trying to figure out wtf forest it was talking about before opening the article.  Worked well in this case.

      • Jim March 25, 2024 (1:09 pm)

        How is this even REMOTELY click bait?!

  • VN March 25, 2024 (8:13 am)

    Thank you for publishing this story.  

  • Delridge resident March 25, 2024 (8:57 am)

    Super cool reporting! I learned a lot about kelp! I hope WSB can find the opportunity to invest in more stories like this.

  • Another One March 25, 2024 (10:34 am)

    Really great article, well-written. Enjoyed reading it. 

  • ACG March 25, 2024 (11:46 am)

    Thank you for writing up this article. So interesting and informative!!

  • Kersti Muul March 25, 2024 (6:13 pm)

    This is a great story. Thank you. I often snorkel that area and it’s a wonderland. I highly recommend….Also, this is another reason why no dog park above was ever going to happen. 

  • Steve D March 25, 2024 (7:13 pm)

    Just wanted to add my thanks and appreciation for the kelp article.I snorkel in that Lincoln Park lagoon and love those underwater forests.

  • Gayle (Hampton) Leberg March 25, 2024 (9:25 pm)

    Thank you for the detailed article. I just thought I’d relay a bit of historical information. My grandparents lived on the waterfront where Wildwood intersects with Fauntleroy way. My grandfather was the chemistry teacher at West Seattle HS and was an avid gardener in the 30’s and 40’s. He fertilized his garden with help, which I assume he harvested right in front of their property. 

    • WSB March 25, 2024 (10:05 pm)

      Kelp has amazing uses! When we lived in a San Diego beach neighborhood before moving here in the early ’90s, we would often see an unusual boat offshore, harvesting kelp for use in products including food and medicine – TR

  • Denise March 25, 2024 (10:16 pm)

    What a wonderful piece! Thank you so much for researching and interpreting this special underwater forest. Every time I walk along the beach I love to imagine all the creatures hidden in there. Great work! 

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