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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 495:1-25 (2014)  -  DOI:

Sea urchin barrens as alternative stable states of collapsed kelp ecosystems

Karen Filbee-Dexter*, Robert E. Scheibling

Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Sea urchin barrens are benthic communities on rocky subtidal reefs that are dominated by urchins and coralline algae; in the absence of intense herbivory by urchins, these barrens support luxuriant seaweed communities such as kelp beds (or forests). Barrens can extend over 1000s of km of coastline or occur in small patches (10s to 100s of m) within a kelp bed. They are characterized by low primary productivity and low food-web complexity relative to kelp communities and are generally considered a collapsed state of the kelp ecosystem. To assess the stability of sea urchin barrens and potential for return to a kelp-dominated state, we document temporal and spatial patterns of occurrence of barrens along temperate and polar coasts. We examine the various drivers of phase (or regime) shifts in these areas, the threshold levels of urchin abundance that trigger abrupt changes in ecosystem state, and the feedback mechanisms that stabilize each state. Although longitudinal (decadal) studies are limited, we find evidence in several regions that transitions between barrens and kelp beds are characterized by discontinuous phase shifts, with different thresholds for forward (to barrens) and reverse (to kelp beds) shifts, in accordance with alternative stable-state dynamics. In other areas, barrens may reflect regime shifts associated with large-scale oceanographic changes. Accelerating climate change and increasing anthropogenic impacts play important roles in altering alternative stable-state dynamics and triggering phase shifts. Recovery of the kelp state may be possible through management or remediation measures, but this necessitates a clear understanding of the thresholds and stabilizing factors for a given system.

KEY WORDS: Sea urchin barrens · Kelp beds · Alternative stable states · Phase shifts

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Cite this article as: Filbee-Dexter K, Scheibling RE (2014) Sea urchin barrens as alternative stable states of collapsed kelp ecosystems. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 495:1-25.

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