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Help For Kelp In A Warming World

Many people rely on kelp in their everyday lives – it’s added to shampoo, face cream and food products such as yoghurt. Kelp forests also provide habitat, food, and shelter for some of our favourite kaimoana and taonga species. And all this is under threat from ocean warming and marine heatwaves with kelp forests declining at twice the annual rate of coral reefs and four times faster than rainforests.

Dr Rebecca Lawton, Senior Lecturer in Marine Science and Aquaculture at the University of Waikato is looking to reverse the tide on kelp loss with her newly awarded Rutherford Discovery Fellowship from the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

“Kelp forests cover almost a third of the world’s coastlines. Significant efforts are required to restore natural populations; however, traditional methods to identify and improve tolerance to the increasing heat are no longer adequate,” says Dr Lawton.

With the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, she’ll build a team in the field of kelp restoration, integrating aquaculture, iwi and community involvement.

For Māori, kelp was traditionally used to transport and relocate shellfish, was preserved as a food source, and some species remain culturally valued taonga. Kelp also accounts for more than 40% of the billion-dollar global aquaculture industry.

“The aim is to create a biological sciences ‘toolkit’ for identifying, mapping, and improving heat tolerance of the common kelp species Ecklonia radiata,” says Dr Lawton. 

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The research will start with a series of experiments to identify heat tolerant varieties of kelp, and treatments that improve heat tolerance at different stages of the kelp lifecycle.

“Then in partnership with Ngāti Whakahemo we’ll use a mātauranga Māori-informed approach to co-design and co-implement a kelp restoration toolkit,” says Dr Lawton.

University of Waikato Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Professor Karin Bryan, says: “With the unprecedented number of marine heat waves being experienced around Aotearoa New Zealand, I am delighted that Dr Lawson will be able to focus on this critically important problem over the next five years.”

Dr Lawton’s fellowship will provide a practical example of how cutting-edge scientific techniques can integrate with Māori worldviews to build capacity and enhance restoration success.

Additionally, this project will contribute to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), placing Aotearoa as a global leader in the development of innovative approaches for future proofing seaweed aquaculture.

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