Loss of predators and the collapse of southern California kelp forests (?): Alternatives, explanations and generalizations

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Foster, M. S., & Schiel, D. R. (2010). Loss of predators and the collapse of southern California kelp forests (?): Alternatives, explanations and generalizations. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 393(1), 59-70. doi:10.1016/j.jembe.2010.07.002
TitleLoss of predators and the collapse of southern California kelp forests (?): Alternatives, explanations and generalizations
AuthorsM. Foster, D. Schiel
AbstractIt is increasingly argued that human-induced alterations to food webs have resulted in the degradation of coastal ecosystems and even their "collapse." We examined the evidence for this argument for Macrocystis pyrifera (giant kelp) forests in southern California. Others have concluded that forests in this region collapsed between 1950 and 1970 as a result of sea urchin grazing driven by overfishing of sea urchin predators (sheephead wrasse and spiny lobsters) and competitors (abalone), and that the kelp forests recovered but are currently sustained as a result of a commercial sea urchin fishery that began in the early 1970s. Our examination of the historical record, primary publications, and previously unpublished data showed that there was no widespread decline in the region between 1950 and 1970, but there were localised declines in mainland kelp forests near the rapidly growing cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. The preponderance of evidence indicates that kelp losses were caused primarily by large increases in contaminated sewage discharged into coastal waters, sedimentation from coastal development, and the 1957-1959 El Niño. Increases in active sea urchin foraging were most likely a secondary effect following dwindling food resources. The forests recovered when sewage treatment improved and sewage outfalls were relocated. The effects of fisheries were explored by correlation analysis between kelp canopy cover and commercial sea urchin landings, and among fisheries landings for sea urchins, abalone, sheephead and lobster. These correlations were generally insignificant, but were often confounded by differences in the spatial scale over which the data were collected as well as factors other than simple abundance that affect the fisheries. However, where area-specific data were available, the landings of sea urchins generally tracked kelp abundance, most likely because roe (gonad) development is directly related to food availability. A literature review showed that although sheephead and lobsters may control sea urchin abundance at small spatial scales within some sites, there is little evidence they do so over large areas. That abalone and sea urchins compete, such that sea urchins increased as a result of abalone harvesting, is largely conjecture based on their similar habitat and food utilization. This study shows that kelp forests in southern California did not collapse, and that declines in some coastal sites were caused primarily by degradation of water quality, increased sedimentation and contamination, and unfavorable oceanographic conditions. We conclude that management by species' protection or reserves will not be effective if poor habitat quality impacts the ability of giant kelp to survive and thrive. © 2010 Elsevier B.V.
JournalJournal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
Start page59
End page70
Subjectsanthropogenic effect, brown alga, echinoderm, ecosystem management, environmental degradation, environmental disturbance, fishery production, food availability, food web, gastropod, grazing, habitat quality, kelp forest, overfishing, predator, sedimentation, sewage disposal, water quality, California, United States, Echinoidea, Haliotidae, lobster, Macrocystis, Macrocystis pyrifera, Palinuridae
NoteCited By (since 1996):20, Seaweeds, CODEN: JEMBA