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The kelp forests in Portugal are particularly threatened by coastal pollution, frequent heatwaves and invasive species

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Big-wave surfer, Joao Macedo, president and founder of the Hope Zones Foundation, in Nazaré, Portugal.

João Macedo is a big-wave surfer. A renowned one, too, with multiple World Surf League nominations. To be a surfer of his calibre requires a healthy dose of optimism. Innovative equipment. A strategic understanding of the environmental conditions. But most of all, a capacity to embrace risk and pressure in the search for a bigger payoff.

Which makes him perfect for his second career: president and founder of the Hope Zones Foundation, an organization that, among other ocean-centred initiatives, protects marine biodiversity while allowing Portuguese coastal communities to flourish.

Those who spend a lot of time in—and with—the sea witness firsthand the significant challenges affecting marine ecosystems.

For surfing enthusiasts such as Mr. Macedo, his co-founder Moritz Seidel and ambassadors of the foundation, it could be argued that there is no greater accomplishment than to help preserve their very own playing field. In the waters of Portuguese surf haven Nazaré, the team has launched a bold new experiment in seaweed reforestation.

Nazaré, a coastal fishing village in the Oeste region of Portugal.
João Macedo surfing a big wave in Nazaré. Ricardo Bravo

The kelp forests in Portugal are particularly threatened by coastal pollution, including sediment that’s pumped into the sea by various infrastructure projects, as well as frequent heatwaves, invasive species, bottom trawling from fisheries, and rising temperatures and intense meteorological events related to climate change, according to Jan Verbeek, the scientific manager at SeaForester, a company whose aim is to replant seaweed forests around the world.

Kelp is not to be underestimated: In addition to fostering biodiversity, it also plays a key role in CO2 absorption, and represents an alternative source of food and protein.

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Macedo’s organization has launched a pilot project that uses the cement blocks of the artificial reef system as a farming area for a native and non-invasive species of kelp.

One of the organization’s priorities is maintaining strong relationships with the local population who work the land and the coastal waters. Loss of seaweed forest directly affects biodiversity and fish populations. Considering that fishing is an important economic sector in Portugal, mitigating these negative effects is crucial not only to the health of the ocean fauna and flora, but also to the livelihood of coastal fishermen.

Back in 2010, the municipality of Nazaré sponsored a project to support its local marine biodiversity by adopting an artificial reef system, made from cement blocks. It turns out those very cement blocks would be the stepping stone for Hope Zones’ endeavour.

The Brown Kelp (Saccorhiza Polyschides) grows in the wild and is similar to the type of kelp that grows on the artificial reef.
Golden Kelp (Laminaria Ochroleuca) grows on rocks in the lab at MARE-Polytechnic of Leiria, in Peniche.
GPS coordinates of the kelp reforestation site in Nazaré.

Climate Innovators and Adaptors

This is one in a series of stories on climate change related to topics of biodiversity, urban adaptation, the green economy and exploration, with the support of Rolex. Read more about the Climate Innovators and Adaptors program.

In conjunction with SeaForester, as well as other partners MARE-Polytechnic of Leiria (Peniche) and Portuguese-based non-profit CoLAB +ATLANTIC, and with a financial boost from The World Surf League’s PURE grant program, Mr. Macedo’s organization has launched a pilot project that uses the cement blocks of the artificial reef system, which sit at 12 to 20 metres deep on the ocean floor, as a farming area for a native and non-invasive species of kelp and other seaweed.

The latest deployment of lab-farmed kelp on the artificial reef system took place in July 2023, as part of a cycle that was initiated back in April.

While waiting for the results of this project, the team will continue working on a myriad of other initiatives. The Hope Zones Foundation focuses on a wide-ranging number of actions, ranging from waste management, workshops, ocean conservation, sustainable architecture promotion, coastal community support, as well as environmental certification programs.

Right now, the Nazaré project is in its early stages. But Mr. Macedo and the other Hope Zones workers look forward to hearing updates from the locals, who are waiting to welcome back a number of fish species to their old habitat.

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Sunset over the coast of Nazaré, Portugal.Catherine Canac-Marquis/The Globe and Mail

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