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Kelp forest ecosystems: biodiversity, stability, resilience and future

  • Robert S. Steneck (a1), Michael H. Graham (a2), Bruce J. Bourque (a3), Debbie Corbett (a4), Jon M. Erlandson (a5), James A. Estes (a6) and Mia J. Tegner (a7)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 February 2003

Kelp forests are phyletically diverse, structurally complex and highly productive components of coldwater rocky marine coastlines. This paper reviews the conditions in which kelp forests develop globally and where, why and at what rate they become deforested. The ecology and long archaeological history of kelp forests are examined through case studies from southern California, the Aleutian Islands and the western North Atlantic, well-studied locations that represent the widest possible range in kelp forest biodiversity. Global distribution of kelp forests is physiologically constrained by light at high latitudes and by nutrients, warm temperatures and other macrophytes at low latitudes. Within mid-latitude belts (roughly 40–60° latitude in both hemispheres) well-developed kelp forests are most threatened by herbivory, usually from sea urchins. Overfishing and extirpation of highly valued vertebrate apex predators often triggered herbivore population increases, leading to widespread kelp deforestation. Such deforestations have the most profound and lasting impacts on species-depauperate systems, such as those in Alaska and the western North Atlantic. Globally urchin-induced deforestation has been increasing over the past 2–3 decades. Continued fishing down of coastal food webs has resulted in shifting harvesting targets from apex predators to their invertebrate prey, including kelp-grazing herbivores. The recent global expansion of sea urchin harvesting has led to the widespread extirpation of this herbivore, and kelp forests have returned in some locations but, for the first time, these forests are devoid of vertebrate apex predators. In the western North Atlantic, large predatory crabs have recently filled this void and they have become the new apex predator in this system. Similar shifts from fish- to crab-dominance may have occurred in coastal zones of the United Kingdom and Japan, where large predatory finfish were extirpated long ago. Three North American case studies of kelp forests were examined to determine their long history with humans and project the status of future kelp forests to the year 2025. Fishing impacts on kelp forest systems have been both profound and much longer in duration than previously thought. Archaeological data suggest that coastal peoples exploited kelp forest organisms for thousands of years, occasionally resulting in localized losses of apex predators, outbreaks of sea urchin populations and probably small-scale deforestation. Over the past two centuries, commercial exploitation for export led to the extirpation of sea urchin predators, such as the sea otter in the North Pacific and predatory fishes like the cod in the North Atlantic. The large-scale removal of predators for export markets increased sea urchin abundances and promoted the decline of kelp forests over vast areas. Despite southern California having one of the longest known associations with coastal kelp forests, widespread deforestation is rare. It is possible that functional redundancies among predators and herbivores make this most diverse system most stable. Such biodiverse kelp forests may also resist invasion from non-native species. In the species-depauperate western North Atlantic, introduced algal competitors carpet the benthos and threaten future kelp dominance. There, other non-native herbivores and predators have become established and dominant components of this system. Climate changes have had measurable impacts on kelp forest ecosystems and efforts to control the emission of greenhouse gasses should be a global priority. However, overfishing appears to be the greatest manageable threat to kelp forest ecosystems over the 2025 time horizon. Management should focus on minimizing fishing impacts and restoring populations of functionally important species in these systems.

Corresponding author
Correspondence: Professor Robert Steneck Tel: +1 207 563 3146 ext. 233 Fax: +1 207 563 3119 e-mail:
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Environmental Conservation
  • ISSN: 0376-8929
  • EISSN: 1469-4387
  • URL: /core/journals/environmental-conservation
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