British Columbia

Century-old maps are helping track B.C.'s kelp forests — and their discovery was kind of an accident

A serendipitous meeting between a professor and a colleague led to a treasure trove of historical maps that indicated kelp bed locations off British Columbia's coast, helping experts understand the changes in what are known as the "rainforests of the ocean."

Using British admiralty charts from 1858-1956, research team has created digital map of coastal kelp

An example of a British chart from the 1850s showing the drawing of kelp blades to indicate kelp beds. (Maycira Costa/Canadian Press)

A serendipitous meeting between a professor and a colleague last year led to a treasure trove of historical maps that indicated kelp bed locations off British Columbia's coast, helping experts understand the changes in what are known as the "rainforests of the ocean."

University of Victoria geography Prof. Maycira Costa saw the squiggly lines on the yellowed, hand-drawn map in a picture frame above her colleague's desk.

The wall art was from 1903 and Costa said her co-worker had found it among a pile of old maps in someone's office.

"I started to look at the details and then I looked at the area that I know of kelp distribution because we are working there with the modern satellite,'' she said. "And I looked at that and said, 'this is kelp distribution.'"

Using those British admiralty charts from 1858 to 1956, Costa and her research team have now created the first historical digital map of B.C.'s coastal kelp forests.

They'll use the maps to further investigate the loss of the kelp beds in research supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, she said.

"Kelp was considered a navigational hazard, so the British carefully annotated all kelp forests on their charts,'' Costa said. "And the historical charts increase our understanding of kelp distribution over time.''

University of Victoria geographer and project lead Prof. Maycira Costa is seen on board a BC Ferries vessel near Horseshoe Bay as part of a citizen science data project in June 2016. (University of Victoria Photo Services/Canadian Press)

'Rainforests of the ocean'

The kelp forests are known to be an important habitat for several species along the B.C. coast.

Herring use the kelp beds as a deposit for their eggs, while crabs, starfish and juvenile salmon also live in the forests, she said.

Kelp also works as a physical barrier to reduce wave action and cut coastal erosion.

"Kelp are the rainforests of the ocean. And they uptake a lot of carbon from the atmosphere of the ocean,'' Costa said.

Kelp forests provide habitat for a whole ecosystem of animals in the ocean, so the loss of kelp can have cascading implications for other creatures. (Monteray Bay Aquarium)

The province has two types of kelp forests, bull and giant. They grow from shallow areas to depths of about 20-25 metres, Costa said.

One of the growing concerns for kelp is warmer water temperatures but it's unclear if that equates to loss of the forests.

"That's the golden question, right?'' Costa said.

How much kelp has been lost?

Kelp beds are also vulnerable to coastal pollution and increased turbidity from shoreline development, she said.

Communities monitoring the kelp beds along the B.C. coast have indicated loss, and now with the help of the British maps, the team will work to compare the ocean forests, she said.

They'll compare the historical maps with satellite images from 2002 until 2017, she said.

"A lot of environmental conditions play a role in how successful kelp beds are in specific year. Some areas in the United States documented loss of kelp beds especially when the ocean gets warmer,'' Costa said.

The next step is to study kelp beds along the entire B.C. coast to better understand how much was lost, she said.

"We now know where they existed about 100 years ago. So, what happened recently?''

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