Growing an Octopus’ Garden: Ken Kirkby Helps Bring Back the Kelp

Ken Kirkby

Ken Kirkby heads the Nile Creek Enhancement Society in Bowser, B.C., on the east side of Vancouver Island. Photo by Liam Moriarty.

Human activity has taken a heavy toll on the Salish Sea. And efforts are underway across the region to restore depleted stocks of everything from salmon to eelgrass.

This week KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty visits a project in the little town of Bowser, British Columbia. He sits on a beach with Ken Kirkby, who heads an innovative community non-profit that’s been restoring a crucial type of habitat: underwater forests of bull kelp.

Click to listen to the story

Liam Moriarty: We’re looking east across Georgia Strait. What are those islands that we’re looking at a little bit to the north, Ken?

Ken Kirkby: The island directly to our northwest is Denman. Then there’s a channel and the next island is Hornby.

Bowser, B.C.

Liam: Now, you came to Bowser quite some years ago.


Ken: I come from one of those ancient families, 1,100 years of mayhem in Europe. I was never comfy there. Didn’t want to be part of it. Wanted to have a new life, my own life. So in September ’58, I managed to make my way to Vancouver with a map of how to get to the village of Bowser, and I fell in love with this place. I’d never seen a real true forest. I’d never seen giant kelp beds. I’d never seen salmon. But then I left after two weeks, promising that I would one day live here.

Liam: So after many years, you came back to Bowser, and things had changed a lot.

Ken: I found the great abundance was gone. The river was void of fish. The kelp beds were gone. The eelgrass was almost gone. So we decided to actually grow kelp.

Liam: Why are the kelp beds important?

Ken: What happens with kelp is that, it’s a primordial thing. It actually bleeds itself perpetually into the ocean, putting all manner of nutrients in that feed the tiny, tiny organisms on which other, larger creatures depend. When the small salmon leave the river, they need a place to go and be while they’re acclimatizing themselves to get on the long journey. Likewise when those larger adult salmon are on their way home, they also need a place to hide out.

Liam: How do you re-establish kelp forests? You can’t just replant them the way you would trees or whatever; how do you do that?

Ken: In large part, as all nature, it’s a numbers game. If we could get enough spores in the ocean and let them travel on the currents, and find substrates that are suitable

Liam: That they could attach to on the bottom.

Ken: Precisely. Our first attempts were as rudimentary as you could possibly get. Imagine onion bags; you put a rock in it, take a piece of spore patch, put it in there, and toss it overboard.

Liam: Let her rip.

Ken: Yeah; and keep doing it. You cannot get simpler than that.

Liam: How did that work out?

Kelp beds often form mats on the surface. The air-filled bulb floats leaf-like blades near the surface to get sunlight, while a "holdfast" anchors the algae to solid surfaces on the sea floor. (photo credit: echoforsberg/Flickr)

Ken: We were blown away in that there was kelp. Now, we found out there was a concrete block maker, cinderblocks, north of us here. In the making of those, there are a lot of duds. Those duds cannot be used for construction and they have to be crushed and disposed of. That costs a lot of money. So we cut a deal with him; if we take them away, can we have them? He said any day you want. We chose these blocks that had been weathered for five years, and we ferried out in front here.

Liam: Out where those buoys are right now?

Ken: Exactly. Right out there. We started building small reefs. And sure enough, the kelp immediately started to grow. We planted some there with divers Then it did re-seed itself.

Liam: Now that you’ve been establishing these new kelp beds that seem to be self-sustaining, are they developing the kinds of colonies of critters that you would expect in a naturally spawning bed?

Ken: When divers went down and we took a look, we couldn’t believe it. In a five month, up to eight month period, the kelp beds that are out in front here were fully populated with five varieties of rock cod; ling cod, kelplings, greenlings, octopus – we’ve got 42 octopus living out here now. We know each one now.

Liam: Have you given them names yet?

Ken: No, no; they said look, this human need to give names to things, can you back off on that one? (laughter) We have squid; lots and lots of herring back. And we’re trying to convince folks to leave this area alone and let the kelp and the herring and all the other things work together, and give it a chance. Let’s give this a ten year window. We can get a really good picture in ten years of how this affects everything. And we’re making progress. We’ve gone to a number of the fisherman who come here, the fishers; we’ve sat them down, human, face to face, and explained to them what we’re doing, include them in it, and ask for their support, and it’s amazing what happens.

Liam: It sounds like that was actually helping to cultivate relationships in the human community here, too.

Winter storms wash masses of bull kelp onto the shore. (photo credit: Ed Bierman/Flickr)

Ken: It has actually made a community. An old fashioned kind of community. People who before probably didn’t even know each other, some who did and didn’t like each other, have been asked to leave their political guns at the door. It’s created a major sense of well being. The greatest beneficiary of this, quite frankly, is the human factor.

Liam: Ken, thanks for taking me out and showing me what you’ve got. This is a beautiful place and you’re doing very interesting things.

Ken: Thanks for being interested, and thanks for coming all this way.

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4 Responses to “Growing an Octopus’ Garden: Ken Kirkby Helps Bring Back the Kelp”

  1. Hi Liam, I’ve listened to your stories for years and I admire your fine work. I especially liked today’s

    program because I’m a Jefferson county BeachWatchers and a volunteer with our wonderful

    Marine Science Center here in Port Townsend. I like the occasional good news story about the

    environment and this was definitely one of them.

    Port Townsend will have a new community radio station, KPTZ, on air by May. I’ve proposed a 5 minute Nature

    Notes bit to insert in various shows. The notes would be very local tips re animals, plants, weather etc.

    And I will do occasional longer interviews. Once we’re up and running, if you’re ever doing a story up

    our way I’d like to interview on the trends you’ve seen developing or changing since you started your


    Thanks for your great reporting



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