Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#334: How Kelp Helped Win "The War"

Despite claims by some that kelp is "dangerous" to dive in, it really does not aggressively "grab" divers and hold them under the water until they drown.. at least not if they are smart and don't panic. In fact, it's easy to simply break between your fingers and swim on. However, don't take giant kelp lightly. In the past it played a very vital role in combat, helping the United States and its allies win "The War to End All Wars" (well, it was a nice concept anyway to this peacenik from the 60's). Let me explain.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, the world was a very different geopolitical place. International tensions and itchy trigger fingers were probably more rampant then than in our interlinked global scene today. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled a good part of Europe. On June 28, 1914, the heir to its throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, member of a Serbian national group known as the Black Hand. Ferdinand's father, Emperor Franz Joseph, issued a harsh ultimatum to the Serbian government to bring the assassins to justice... or face war. When Serbia balked at the harsh ultimatum, Austro-Hungary declared war on them exactly one month later. Russia, bound by treaty, came to Serbia's defense and Germany not only joined but encouraged Austro-Hungary. France and Britain were also bound by treaties with Russia and one another, and readied themselves for combat. The "fun" was on. Of course, the United States under President Woodrow Wilson remained neutral until 1917.

So what does all this have to do with the giant kelp in southern California's nearshore waters? Prior to "The War," Germany was the world's primary source of potash, a critical component of fertilizer. It was mined extensively in that country dating back to its discovery there in 1840. The United States imported about 20% of Germany's production. Our government, faced with increasing control on potash sales by the German government and the potash cartel, became concerned about sources of it for fertilizer. They also anticipated the outbreak of hostilities, and were concerned about a second use of potash... as an important component in gunpowder! As early as 1910, officials were looking for an alternate source of potash in the event Germany cut off our supply. One source considered was giant kelp, which is rich in potassium and could provide the resources necessary to supply agricultural fertilizer, and the military with gunpowder should we enter the fray.

In 1911 and 1912 Captain Wiliam Crandall was commissioned to conduct a survey of the kelp resources off the West Coast from Cabo San Lucas to Puget Sound. He used the methods of the time, a sextant and triangulation, to map the extensive beds of Macrocystis pyrifera and other kelps. Our kelps also offered the possibility of producing acetone, another component necessary for the production of gunpowder. As early as 1914, DuPont was investigating the use of kelp in southern California for both potash and acetone. In 1916 the Hercules Powder Company built a large plant in San Diego to process kelp, and a year later the U. S. Government opened a plant in Summerland. Our effort was not strictly directed at developing the resource for our own military. After all, we declared neutrality in the early years of "The War." However U. S. corporations had huge contacts to supply ammunition to our future allies. Make war and profits, not peace and love! So kelp harvested off the southern California coast and elsewhere actually helped the U.S. and its Allies win "The War."

Crandall's survey maps created almost 100 years ago are still used by the California Department of Fish & Game to help manage kelp harvesting activities off our coast. They are also used as a baseline to indicate the extent of our kelp beds at a time when California's population was much smaller and human impact on the nearshore resources was far less. During the boom that began in our State following the end of World War II, the exploding population began impacting our nearshore waters and kelp beds due to untreated sewage discharges. The sewage not only degraded water quality, but also provided an alternate food resource for sea urchins. When the urchins finished munching the kelp forests, rather than die off they were able to feed on the organic matter in the sewage and prevent the regrowth of new kelp.

My own research into kelp persistence back in the 1990's utilized Crandall's maps as well. Although my focus was on the kelp beds off Catalina, and Crandall's map of our island's kelp was not specific enough, it did provide background for my discussion of kelp mapping efforts. It is unfortunate Crandall and others did not have the satellite images that allowed me a fairly easy means of mapping our kelp forests over a span of several years. If Catalina ever goes to war, I'll know where the most persistent beds are located to harvest kelp for gunpowder! Of course so do most anglers and divers! Besides, Canada is one of our primary sources for potash these days, so unless they declare war on us we should be fine.

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

German potash miners and potash in various stages of processing; World War I breaks out
and Crandall's map of the kelp resources around Catalina Island.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia