Kelp Watch 2014 Evaluates the Extent of Contamination from Fukushima Disaster to West Coast Waters’ (VIDEO)

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Courtesy of Cal State Long Beach

Courtesy of Cal State Long Beach

On a cool, partly cloudy March afternoon, Dan Crear and Connor White headed out beyond the break wall in one of California State University, Long Beach’s boats to fish out some 25 pounds of kelp from the Pacific Ocean.

The two graduate students in CSULB’s marine biology program were collecting the first samples from Long Beach waters for “Kelp Watch 2014,” a scientific campaign designed to determine the extent of radioactive contamination of the state’s kelp forest from Japan’s damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The Long Beach sampling was one of more than 40 kelp collections taking place up and down the West Coast—from as far north as Zodiac Island, Alaska to as far south as Baja California—over the last two weeks as individuals, academic institutions and other organizations have volunteered to take part in the study.

It is the first of three sample collection dates set for the project through 2014 (the others are in July and October), and the timing of the first is somewhat noteworthy as the third anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the Japanese coast is less than a week away.

Initiated by CSULB Professor Steven Manley and Kai Vetter, head of applied nuclear physics at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “Kelp Watch 2014” has two primary objectives: study the extent of the contamination from the Fukushima disaster and make the results and explanations of the research available to the public.

The impetus for the project goes back a couple of years when Manley and a CSULB colleague published research on how much contamination from the Fukushima disaster made its way to the California coast through the atmosphere.  Manley says he received a number of concerned e-mails from members of the public who wanted to know if it was safe to swim in the Pacific Ocean and eat the fish and other seafood caught in its waters.

“I thought it would be good if someone actually measured the contamination and then could report to the public that it’s not harmful, if that is indeed the case,” said Manley, whose expertise is in marine algae or seaweed. “Then there was a paper that came out at the end of 2013 with a projected path and concentrations in the seawater from the Fukushima contamination, and how it was following the current and coming down the West Coast. So, I thought let’s do this.”

Manley pointed out that there are several characteristics that make kelp and seaweed an ideal source to study the oncoming contaminants.

“Remember, this project was started in California, and you can find kelp from San Diego to the Oregon border.  It is located perfectly to be a sentinel. Nothing gets by it,” he explained. “And, the two species we chose for the project (giant kelp and bull kelp) are canopy forming kelps, so they form a surface canopy, So, they put most of their mass at the surface waters, and they get bathed with surface water continuously.”

Manley also noted that kelp and seaweed are like sponges. They absorb materials that are in the water and concentrate many of them in their tissues.

“As it happens, these anticipated radio isotopes were looking for are concentrated about 20 fold in kelp tissue, which is nice because if you are just measuring water, the contamination levels could be too low to detect.  Multiply that by 20, and we’re pretty confident that if it’s there, we are going to pick it up,” he said.

“Another reason kelps are good to use for a project such as this is that they are the basis of a very productive and complex ecosystem,” Manley continued. “Finally, there is the fact that the kelp is easy to grab, easy to process and easy to analyze for this kind of research.”

The goal of each sample collection is to gather 14 pounds of blade tissue, and to do that those collecting need about 25 pounds of kelp in all.

After it’s collected, the kelp will go through two phases of processing before it is analyzed.  First, the kelp blades will be cut and prepared for two days of drying. Student volunteers will roll up the blades like cigars and place them in baking pans and put the pans in an oven to dry for two days. That’s the crucial step, according to Manley.

Once that is complete, the dry, rolled-up kelp is put in a blender to chop it up. Then, the chopped kelp is put through a mill to grind it up into a powder.  Manley says the 14 pounds of kelp will produce about 1 liter of powder, which will be bottled up, labeled and shipped off to the Berkeley Laboratory for analysis.

Three labs—including Manley’s lab at CSULB, one at San Diego State University and the Moss Landing Marine Lab in the Monterey Bay area—are serving as regional processing centers, taking the kelp from the more than 40 participants gathering samples and breaking them down into the powder.

The three collection periods during the course of the year were set up to gauge any change that might occur in the contamination levels during 2014.  Hopefully, Manley said the first sampling period is before the contaminated material arrives here so researchers have a baseline measure. The following two collections will let the scientists see if there is any build up in contamination as the year goes on.

The results of the first round of testing should be available by the middle of May.

“We anticipate finding an increase in radioactive contamination within the kelp, but it’s not going to be a human health risk,” Manley stated, sharing his hypothesis for the study. “Still, it is important to confirm it, and if it is indeed that low, it is important to let the public know.  It is also just important to know how much has gotten into the kelp.”

As for testing beyond 2014, Manley’s not saying no.

“If we get good data, we might try to keep the study going for another year or two,” he said. “We probably won’t sample as often or maybe we will sample more.  It really depends on the results we get from these three testing periods.”

Footage courtesy of Cal State Long Beach

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