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Kelp watch monitors radioactive contaminants from Fukushima disaster

Scientists will collect kelp in the waters of Big Fisherman’s Cove off Catalina Island

kelp watcher
A technician samples kelp for a radiation survey. (Photo/Alexandra Winqvist)

Researchers with the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, housed at the USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Sciences, will collect kelp in the waters of Big Fisherman’s Cove off Catalina Island as part of a scientific campaign to evaluate radioactive contamination.

The effort comes three years after a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in early 2011 crippled the Fukushima plant, resulting in the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Within weeks, USC Sea Grant provided rapid response funding to two researchers at California State University, Long Beach, to monitor radioactive iodine contamination in California waters.

Cal State Long Beach biologists Steven Manley and Chris Lowe took samples of coastal kelp with the funding from USC Sea Grant, administered by USC Dornsife. Their study of radioactive contamination, published in 2012 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, reported “a significant input into the kelp forest ecosystem.”

Kelp Watch 2014 is the first effort since 2011 to examine the long-term effect of radiation leaks in Japan on California’s coastal waters. Manley organized the project, which involves Kai Vetter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., who will provide the high-resolution analysis. USC Sea Grant is providing funding to support the kelp sampling as well as shipping costs, lab supplies, lab equipment and incidental costs.

“The California kelp forest is a highly productive and complex ecosystem and a valuable state resource,” said Manley, an expert in marine algae and kelp. “It is imperative that we monitor this coastal forest for any radioactive contaminants that will be arriving this year in the ocean currents from the Fukushima disaster.

“I receive calls and emails weekly from concerned visitors and Californians about the effect of the Fukushima disaster on our California marine life,” he continued. “I tell them that the anticipated concentrations that will arrive are most likely very low, but we have no data regarding its impact on our coastal ecosystem. Kelp Watch 2014 will provide an initial monitoring system at least in the short-term.”

Support coming from in and outside California

Kelp Watch 2014 includes participation of the USC Wrigley Institute, 18 academic and government institutions, and three other organizations and businesses. Participants will sample kelp three times between mid-February and late winter along the entire California coastline, as far north as Del Norte County on the Oregon state line and as far south as San Diego.

Manley’s request for volunteers has drawn support outside California: Groups have offered to collect kelp in Alaska, British Columbia, Baja, Calif., and Chile, and also in Hawaii and Guam.

Participants will collect 6.5 kilograms (about 14 pounds) of giant kelp and bull kelp each time they go out. Samples of the processed kelp will be sent to the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Low Background Facility for detailed radionuclide analysis. As data becomes available, it will be posted for public access.

The effort by the USC Wrigley Institute is being coordinated by Alexandra Winqvist, Jessica Dutton and Linda Chilton. Winqvist, education and naturalist specialist at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, will collect the kelp from Big Fisherman’s Cove on Catalina, and Dutton, postdoctoral scholar at the USC Wrigley Institute, will bring the kelp back to the mainland and deliver it to a processing site at Cal State Long Beach.

Chilton, the USC Sea Grant education program coordinator, will use the first collection in early March as an educational research experience for a visiting student group from University High School in Los Angeles. Manley is soliciting donations to cover the costs of shipping kelp during this campaign; he estimates roughly $3,000 for samples from all locations during each sampling period.

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Kelp watch monitors radioactive contaminants from Fukushima disaster

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