front of CELS building
News and Announcements

In the Pacific, Global Warming Disrupted The Ecological Dance of Urchins, Sea Stars And Kelp. Otters Help Restore Balance.

When ocean heat waves and a sea star disease devastated kelp forests that are critical to sea life and the California urchin fishing industry, sea otters came to the rescue.

Posted in: Biology, In The Media, Marine Biology, Research

Purple urchins consume the remainder of a small giant kelp.
Purple urchins consume the remainder of a small giant kelp. In the background, an urchin barren has cleared the majority of nearby kelp and algae leaving an environment less hospitable for many species. Credit: Michael Langhans

Along parts of the U.S. Northeast Coast, kelp forests are being replaced by a less productive ecosystem of low-slung, turf-like algae mats that don’t provide cover for juvenile fish, said Montclair State University marine ecologist Colette Feehan, who tracked the changes in a 2020 Scientific Advances study.

The Northern California kelp study is “particularly significant in that it demonstrates that marine ecosystems can reach ‘tipping points’ at which abrupt or sudden losses of species occur due to compounding climate-change stressors,” Feehan said.

Kelp is not mobile, “so they can’t track climate change the way a fish can,” she said. Some kelp species can only disperse across tens of kilometers, she added, so if they are wiped out across larger areas, recolonization becomes very difficult and slow.

In addition to protecting shorelines by dampening strong waves, Feehan said kelp oxygenates coastal waters and abates ocean acidification by taking carbon dioxide out of the system, storing it and sequestering it in  deep water offshore when it dies and sinks.

“A loss of kelp forests means losing that carbon sequestration,” she said.

Dr. Feehan’s contribution is part of a larger story, read the full piece on Inside Climate News