Bald kelp: natural and harvesting-induced frond loss in the South African kelp Ecklonia maxima
Ecklonia maxima dominates kelp beds on the west coast of southern Africa, and is commercially and ecologically valuable. Some plants lose all their secondary blades (fronds), leaving only the gas-filled bulb and short primary blade at the top of the stipe. These ‘bald’ kelps may persist for months or longer, occupying substratum space but contributing little to productivity. We investigated natural causes of balding in five kelp beds in False Bay, South Africa, and the effect of simulated commercial frond-harvesting on loss of fronds. Densities of sporophytes with and without fronds were measured at the water surface during low tides. Generalised linear modelling analysis showed a significant relationship between balding and site (whether sheltered from or exposed to swell/wind), position in the kelp bed (shoreward or seaward) and total E. maxima density. We conclude that balding is caused mainly by drying of meristematic basal regions of fronds during emersion of kelp heads at low tide. After partial harvesting of fronds, kelp heads floated higher out of the water, but after 95 days frond loss was significantly higher only when fronds were cut too close to the primary blade, possibly because of damage to meristematic tissue. Nevertheless, increased emersion that results from frond-harvesting may increase desiccation and blade loss and we suggest caution in setting harvest limits for this kelp.
Keywords: kelp detritus, kelp ecology, kelp harvesting, kelp productivity