Kelp Forest Monitoring at Naval Base Ventura County, San Nicolas Island, California: Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, Fifth Annual Report

Open-File Report 2020-1091
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Navy
By:  and 



Kelp forests and rocky reefs are among the most recognized marine ecosystems and provide the primary habitat for several species of fishes, invertebrates, and algal assemblages (Stephens and others, 2006). In addition, kelp forests have been shown to be important carbon dioxide sinks (Wilmers and others, 2012) and are an important source of nearshore marine primary production (Duggins and others, 1989). These highly dynamic ecosystems are extremely variable, and both top-down and bottom-up ecological controls drive this rich trophic environment. Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) forests and the species that inhabit these ecosystems are influenced by several environmental conditions, such as wave exposure, water temperature, water clarity, bottom depth and composition, species composition, and the density of kelp and other algal assemblages (Schiel and Foster, 2015). However, in addition to “normal” variability, kelp forests can undergo extreme regime shifts from kelp canopy forested areas to barrens characterized by high densities of urchins and encrusting coralline algae (Harrold and Reed, 1985). 

San Nicolas Island (SNI), outermost of the California Channel Islands, is home to a diverse group of terrestrial and marine organisms and includes kelp bed and rocky reef habitats (fig. 1). The SNI kelp forests not only provide food and shelter for fishes and invertebrates within the habitat, but also they support higher trophic level consumers such as marine birds and several marine mammal species including the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis), a major predator on sea urchins and other marine invertebrates. 

Owing to concern about the vulnerability of the California population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) translocated 140 southern sea otters from the central California coast to SNI between 1987 and 1990. Although only approximately 14 translocated otters are thought to have remained at SNI (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2012), their population at the island has increased and is currently greater than 120 individuals (Hatfield and others, 2019). Sea otters are a natural part of the kelp forest ecosystem, but their presence has implications for community dynamics as they repopulate a region from which they were extirpated in the 19th century. At SNI, sea otters have been concentrated mostly around the west end of the island, with some use of the south side and very little, but expanding, use of the northeast side. An ecosystem shift from urchin dominated to kelp dominated, that occurred at a site at the west end of the island in the early 2000s, though initiated by sea urchin disease, was likely facilitated to some degree by sea otter foraging (Kenner and Tinker, 2018). 

These ecosystems also are the target of many fisheries, including urchin and lobster. Urchin fisheries, which target the larger red sea urchin, may release the smaller but more mobile purple sea urchin from competitive control (Dayton and others, 1998). Lobster fisheries may release purple sea urchins from predatory control (Lafferty, 2004). Owing to the distance from the mainland, however, SNI kelp forests and reefs have been somewhat protected from the degree of harvest and other anthropogenic impacts experienced by the southern California mainland. Invasive species are another issue, and there are a few invasive subtidal macroalgae of concern in southern California waters. Although the brown alga Sargassum muticum has been established at the island for decades, S. horneri has only recently been seen at SNI and, so far, the invasive kelp Undaria pinnatifida and the green alga Caulerpa taxifolia have not been observed there. Sargassum horneri, in particular, has demonstrated a capability to outcompete native kelps at some of the other Channel Islands but it is unclear what indirect effects it may have on community structure (Marks and others, 2015). 

Because the surrounding kelp forests fall within the management boundary of the SNI Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP; U.S. Navy, 2015), USGS works with the Navy to provide surveys of this ecologically important ecosystem that inform natural resource managers of trends in the population abundance of particular species. In addition, long-term surveys allow for an understanding of potential changes in species diversity and community composition as a result of trophic or other interactions. 

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) implemented a kelp forest monitoring program for the U.S. Navy at San Nicolas Island in 2014, building on sites and methods established by USFWS scientists in 1980 (appendix 1). This report focuses on data collected during sampling expeditions to these sites in fall 2018 (October 2–5) and spring 2019 (April 3–6). Together they will be herein referred to as year 5 because, although the trips were made in different calendar years, they were approximately 6 months apart and were conducted under the fifth year of this contract. The previous sampling year (fall 2017 and spring 2018) is referred to as year 4. The year 5 data are compared with data collected during eight trips from fall 2014 through spring 2018. Differences in counts between these expeditions can result from seasonal factors, stochastic variation, or sampling error, but temporal comparison can reveal population trends. Where appropriate, long-term data collected during the 33 years prior to the implementation of these slightly revised protocols will be presented in order to lend some context to the observations reported here. 

Genus and species names used in this report are those currently recognized as valid in the Integrated Taxonomic Information System ( Upon first use, the name recognized as valid by the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS; is shown in brackets if different. The exception is Sargassum horneri which does not show up in any discernable form in

Suggested Citation

Kenner, M.C., and Tomoleoni, J.A., 2020, Kelp forest monitoring at Naval Base Ventura County, San Nicolas Island, California: Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, fifth annual report: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2020–1091, 93 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Supersite Descriptions
  • Trip Conditions and Accomplishments
  • Results
  • Conclusions and Management Considerations
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Sampling History
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Kelp forest monitoring at Naval Base Ventura County, San Nicolas Island, California: Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, fifth annual report
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2020-1091
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201091
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description ix, 93 p.
Country United States
State California
County Ventura County
Other Geospatial Naval Facility San Nicolas Island
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details