Kelp on White Beach, Tasmania, December 2009.
Kelp, a large seaweed that grows in underwater forests along temperate coasts, supports many marine species in turn. The Kelp Highway Hypothesis postulates that Pacific Rim kelp forests and the wealth of fish, mammals and birds that they supported sustained maritime hunter-gatherers spreading into the New World 16,000 years ago. Kelp species play an important role in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisines, and fuelled the production of soda ash in the Scottish Highlands and islands until the industry’s collapse in the 19th century, which fuelled emigration to North America and beyond. Charles Darwin wrote of the kelp forests of Tierra del Fuego that “if in any country a [terrestrial] forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp”.
In October 2016, an ocean heatwave destroyed the last giant kelp forest on the east coast of Tasmania, bringing an end to an ecosystem that has dominated it for tens of thousands of years.