Kelp Forests

Kelp forests provide important structural features and ecosystem function to coastal marine communities. The physical structure of kelp provides vertical habitat similar to trees on land; it is used by numerous fishes and invertebrates.

Two species account for the bulk of physical structure and kelp biomass in the northern California region: bull kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, and giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera.

Bull kelp, which tolerates high wave action, is typical along exposed rocky shores, whereas giant kelp is abundant in all areas except the most exposed sites. Bull kelp is an annual, and giant kelp is a perennial but rarely lives longer than two to three years. Both species recruit in late spring and early summer.

In addition to the canopy-forming species, there are several kelp species (e.g., Pterygophora californica, Laminaria spp.) that form an understory below giant and bull kelp. This understory adds a tremendous amount of biomass to the kelp forest and provides additional habitat for fishes and invertebrates.

Kelp forests extend from just beyond the breaking waves to depths of usually less than 25 meters throughout most of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s nearshore waters. No kelp forests exist in the Greater Farallones or Cordell Bank sanctuaries.

The Sand-rose anemone (Urticina columbiana) typically has a column of pale red or red-orange with distinctive horizontal rows of ruffled verrucae (warts). This anemone is typically found partially buried.


The thousands of invertebrate species that live in kelp forests help make this system rich and diverse.

Giant kelp and other algae support large populations of benthic invertebrates, which in turn attract higher-order predators. Some common invertebrate species associated with kelp forests include the ochre sea star, Pisaster ochraceus, purple urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, and the California sea cucumber, Parastichopus californicus.

Kelp forests are considered an important nursery habitat for nearshore rockfishes and serve as a primary foraging area for many southern sea otters, Enhydra lutris nereis.

Grass Rockfish
Grass rockfish (Sebastes rastrelliger) are generally in shallow water, but are relatively uncommon along the central California coast. This individual can almost always be found near the boat ramp at Point Lobos Ecological Reserve. This photo was taken as a part of subtidal surveys conducted for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.


Within the three northern California sanctuaries, kelp forest monitoring efforts currently take place in the Monterey Bay sanctuary only; neither the Greater Farallones nor the Cordell

Bank sanctuary has monitoring efforts focused on this habitat.

Examples of related monitoring projects: