Counting fish in the kelp forests of Baja California

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Kelp forests are the submerged counterparts of rain forests and are among the most productive ecosystem in the world. A complex three-dimensional habitat structured by the kelp that can grow up to 30 meters, and reach the sea surface. Understory macroalgae attached to the sea bottom provide habitat and refuge for many species, including those economically important for fisheries.

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Since 2011 the Kelp Forests Ecology Group (scientists and students from the IIO and FCM at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California) have traveled more than 500 km of Baja California’s Pacific coastline, exploring and documenting the peninsular’s kelp forest species. To date, 22 different sites have been visited, with over 150 dives undertaken (a total of 439 survey transects). This represents the most serious effort to set up a long-term monitoring project that will help scientists understand the dynamics of Baja’s kelp forest communities that are exposed to natural as well as anthropogenic disturbances.

Conclusions

Results from our underwater surveys show that there are more fish species in the understory than there are in the kelp canopy. This pattern may be due to a number of factors including food resources, shelter from predators and waves, and the presence of suitable spawning locations. Evaluating fish communities through visual census represents the best non-destructive method to study the composition and structure of kelp forest fish communities. This monitoring program represents the leading fishery-independent data source for Baja’s kelp communities. The results will help to assess the dynamics of this important ecosystem. Accurate and consistent information that describes Baja California’s kelp forests is critical in order to design successful management and conservation strategies.