, Volume 579, Issue 1, pp 233-249

Testing the generality of the trophic cascade paradigm for sea otters: a case study with kelp forests in northern Washington, USA

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Abstract

Trophic cascade hypotheses for biological communities, linking predation by upper trophic levels to major features of ecological structure and dynamics at lower trophic levels, are widely subscribed and may influence conservation policy. Few such hypotheses have been evaluated for temporal or spatial generality. Previous studies of sea otter (Enhydra lutris) predation along the outer coast of North America suggest a pattern, often elevated to the status of paradigm, in which sea otter presence leads to reduced sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus spp.) biomass and rapid increases in abundance and diversity of annual algal species, followed by a decline in diversity as one or a few perennial algal species become dominant. Both sea otter predation and commercial sea urchin harvest are ecologically and economically important sources of urchin mortality in nearshore benthic systems in northern Washington marine waters. We recorded changes in density of macroalgae in San Juan Channel, a marine reserve in the physically protected inland waters of northern Washington, resulting from three levels of experimental urchin harvest: (1) simulated sea otter predation (monthly complete harvest of sea urchins), (2) simulated commercial urchin harvest (annual size-selective harvest of sea urchins), and (3) no harvest (control). The two experimental urchin removal treatments did not significantly increase the density of perennial (Agarum and Laminaria) or annual (Desmarestia, Costaria, Alaria and Nereocystis) species of macroalgae after 2 years, despite significant and persistent decreases in urchin densities. Our results suggest that other factors such as grazing by other invertebrates, the presence of dense Agarum stands, and recruitment frequency of macroalgae and macroinvertebrates may play a large role in influencing community structure in San Juan Channel and other physically protected marine waters within the range of sea otters.

Handling editor: J. Trexler