The Fish Reef Project
The kelp forests found along the Californian coast harbor abundant marine life, reduce ocean acidity, and even help support the plankton so vital for ocean health. While historically the Central Coast has been an area of lush kelp forests, the impact from damming of rivers, repeated droughts during El Niño years, and other environmental factors have led to the slow attrition of the local kelp forests. Kelp needs hard bottom substrates to attach to and oftentimes human systems restrict the natural flow of these materials from the land into the ocean. During a big event like the Montecito mudslides, normally the boulders and debris from this storm would have entered the ocean and become the foundation of the next thousand years of kelp forest reefs. But a thousand years ago there weren’t roads, houses, and other infrastructure to block the path of this material into the ocean. Through the Fish Reef Project Chris Goldblatt is seeking a biogenic solution that, he says, will help “offset the impact that mankind has made on the ocean, and account for a lot of the impact and space usage problems that are coming down the pipe.” The Fish Reef Project designs and installs reef structures that mimic nature and help restore what has been lost. These “marine life enhancement reefs” have been installed around the world and the Fish Reef Project is looking to help replenish the kelp forests of the Central Coast next.
While Chris founded the Fish Reef Project in 2012, this work is a culmination of his life at sea. Chris grew up in Malibu which he notes was a modest setting at the time, but was rich in ocean access. He entered the ocean at six years old where he began to learn the joys of fishing and the rich food source the sea provides. Chris spent years as a kid piecing together his dive gear, a much more improvisational task during those times. His first experiences with the abundant sea life of the kelp forests was working on fishing boats as a “pinhead” at the age of nine where he would work for free in exchange for fishing and experience. He started working on an offshore tuna fleet in San Diego at the age of 12 and would continue this work for the next 20 years. During these years, Chris also received a bachelor’s degree from Humboldt State University in Fisheries and Business.
Eventually he ended up getting a boat with one of his buddies where they spent thousands of dives exploring the Santa Monica Bay. Most of what they saw was mud. Chris emphasizes that reefs are quite rare and not as ubiquitous as they seem. Actually for most of the ocean, “the default is mud.” This doesn’t mean the mud is lifeless, but whenever they found any kind of structure during their dives they would discover an underwater oasis bursting from it. It was encountering the “cornucopia of life” that surrounded these physical structures that made Chris realize that “complex hard bottom reef structure is a limiting factor in the overall productivity of the ocean.” This means that if there are more physical structures on the bottom of the ocean, there are more places for life to form. Kelp also clings to these structures and forms the foundation of the complex ecosystem of fish, plankton, lobsters, abalone, and other critters that thrive in these lush forests.
‘A Small Band of True Believers’
Since founding the Fish Reef Project, Chris and “a small band of true believers,” as he calls them, have been putting in 40-hour work weeks, unpaid, for ten years to bring the project to life. During this time the team of engineers, graphic designers, and construction workers have created and installed a range of sea caves that are of their own unique design. These designs are meant to mimic the size, shape, form, and function of the natural structures and materials found in the ocean. Their shapes are engineered to withstand the intense storms they’ll encounter and the reefs are constructed from natural quarry rock as well as special marine concrete. The sea caves have a large flat area for kelp to grow and balance the size and number of cave-like cavities to promote habitation of the large breeder fish, which are key to balancing the ecosystem. By placing these specially designed sea caves in a systematic manner of adequate size and scope, they are able to restore the kelp forests in areas where they have slowly been disappearing. These biogenic reefs don’t just act as an attraction device for sea life, they actually produce an abundance of life that overflows into the surroundings, similar to marine protection areas. And as Chris notes, kelp, per acre, can sequester 60 times more carbon than pine trees.
Over the years, the Fish Reef Project has helped rebuild marine ecosystems with their reef installations in areas including Ghana, Papua New Guinea, Jamaica, and Hawaii. These biogenic reefs help restore the local marine life, while also providing a replenishable source of local, sustainable protein and fishing jobs for the neighboring communities. Since 2015 the Fish Reef Project has had a permanent observer seat on the United Nations International Seabed Authority (ISA) where they have been able to provide a voice for different issues. This includes helping introduce language into underwater mineral mining standards that would require reef restoration for these sites. Their most current project is focused on rebuilding the kelp forests along the Central Coast. They previously found a United States Geological Survey map from 1912 that charted the kelp forests in the region. This detailed map showed a thousand foot wide kelp forest running from El Capitan to Rincon Point. Compared to the current levels in the area, the kelp forest is anywhere from 50 to 90 percent gone, between good and bad kelp years.
The Goleta Kelp Restoration Project would build off of the existing Goleta pipeline whose quarry rock covering makes a good support for the reef installation. After already completing a successful pilot project, they are aiming to establish a 220-acre kelp forest consisting of 50, 20-foot-by-20-foot quadrants that contain a sea cave or systematically placed mixed quarry rock. Up until this point this project has been largely self-funded with some in-kind and additional modest donations coming in from generous supporters. However, this large-scale project will need additional funding, and is looking to raise more than $3 million from a range of like-minded donors. The primary sponsor would even have the kelp forest named after them, a legacy that would be on nautical maps and last for hundreds of years. And of course the impact and legacy the Goleta Kelp Restoration Project would have on the local marine ecosystem could last even longer than that.
Chris recently presented on the Fish Reef Project to a Zoom audience as part of the monthly lecture series from the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The full lecture will soon be available to view on the museum website where there is already a library of videos from their previous speakers. The museum is offering free monthly Zoom lectures (registration required) on a variety of maritime topics. The next lecture will be on August 20, 2020 and will feature author Corinne Heyning Laverty discussing the history of the Channel Islands through the context of biological surveys and historic images. More information and registration can be found on the museum website (sbmm.org) or through their newsletter.
Visit fishreef.org for more information on the Fish Reef Project and its work.