On Campus

Karina NielsenKarina Neilsen and the sea palms she studies.

Sea Palm Savior

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Along the most wave-exposed areas of the battered headlands of the Sonoma County coast clings a tenacious kelp plant, a frondy thing with a sturdy stem that resembles a palm tree so closely that it is called the sea palm. Unique to this coastline, it can only be found in pockets between San Luis Obispo and Vancouver Island. Although it grips the rocks against the full force of ocean waves, its existence could be threatened by a more devastating force — human appetites. For the sea palm, considered a heart healthy alternative to noodles, is fast becoming a popular ingredient in dishes built around trendy Pacific Rim cuisines.

Biologists and harvesters alike are concerned with sustainable collecting techniques, particularly in light of Web-based ordering. As the quixotic, charismatic sea palm is an annual, careless harvesting could wipe out stands of this spunky kelp in a single season.

In early fall 2005, the National Organization of Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s California Sea Grant Program awarded SSU biology professor Karina Nielsen, above, a three-year $129,000 grant to study the sea palm. This grant will enable her and co-recipient Carol Blanchette of the University of California, Santa Barbara, to make observations and conduct experiments in an attempt to understand the sea palm’s reproductive cycle and determine the best method of cutting the fronds to ensure a sustainable harvest.

The grant provides fellowships for two graduate students and an opportunity for several undergraduates to participate in the project, a boon to graduate and undergraduate SSU biology majors alike. The experiments and observations will be run in San Luis Obispo and Ft. Bragg; it is Nielsen’s intention that the information will aid regulatory agencies in creating effective and adequate guidelines to ensure that the sea palm will continue clinging valiantly to the rocky, wave-battered shores.