We Salute...Nancy Caruso
Call her the Johnny Appleseed of the ocean—she and local students are sowing underwater fields of giant kelp off the Southern California coast.
CL: Last year you started Get Inspired! Inc., a nonprofit organization that works with schoolkids to grow kelp in classroom nurseries. At the end of each yearlong program, you and divers transplant the seaweed to the ocean. Of all marine organisms to save, why kelp?
NC: A kelp forest is an essential part of the food chain—it’s basically a buffet for ocean creatures that never closes. Several factors in the mid-to late-1900s, mostly due to California’s human population boom, destroyed them. The result was barren reefs covered in sea urchins with few fish populations.
CL: How do you get the kids in your program excited about saving seaweed?
NC: There’s a huge emphasis on ownership of their “kelp babies.” I also tell them that alginate, a component of giant kelp, is extracted and used in thousands of everyday items, from Taco Bell meals to toothpaste.
CL: What’s the growth process?
NC: First I collect reproductive blades of ocean kelp. Then, after an in-school lab, the students grow the kelp—feeding it, changing the water, testing water chemistry, and checking its progress under a microscope—for four months.
CL: You’ve even found a cool way to get the community involved. How?
NC: I require my students to teach the public what they’re doing. Not only does this educate more people, but also it gives students a chance to be thanked—and that instantly creates future ocean stewards.
CL: How did you get into ocean conservation?
NC: When I was 10, I realized that there was land under ocean water and thought it was the coolest thing. From that moment, I was hooked.
CL: Even though your nonprofit is only a year and a half old, you’ve been doing similar kelp-growing projects through regional grants since 2002. What do you ultimately hope to accomplish?
NC: I want to see healthy kelp forests in waters off of Orange County. I will continue to work on that, however long it takes.
CL: Any new plans?
NC: I’m expanding the program to include abalone and sea bass. If kids are already excited about kelp, imagine how they’ll feel about something with a face!