, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 323–332 | Cite as

Accelerating Trophic-level Dysfunction in Kelp Forest Ecosystems of the Western North Atlantic

  • Robert S. Steneck
  • John Vavrinec
  • Amanda V. Leland
Special Feature


We use archaeological, historical, ecological, and fisheries data to identify three distinct and sequential phases in the trophic structure of kelp forests in the western North Atlantic’s Gulf of Maine. Phase 1 is characterized by vertebrate apex predators such as Atlantic cod, haddock, and wolffish and persisted for more than 4,000 years. Phase 2 is characterized by herbivorous sea urchins and lasted from the 1970s to the 1990s. Phase 3 is dominated by invertebrate predators such as large crabs and has developed since 1995. Each phase change resulted directly or indirectly from fisheries-induced “trophic-level dysfunction,” in which populations of functionally important species at higher trophic levels fell below the densities necessary to limit prey populations at lower trophic levels. By using fractional trophic-level analysis, we found that phase changes occurred rapidly (over a few years to a few decades) as well as relatively recently (over the past half-century). Interphase durations have declined as fishing effects have accelerated in recent years. The naturally low species diversity of the kelp forest ecosystem we studied may facilitate rapid changes because the redundancy within each trophic level is low. If the biodiversity within controlling trophic levels is a buffer against trophic-level dysfunction, then our observations from Maine may be predictive of the fate of other, more diverse systems. If fishing successively targets most, or all, strong interactors at higher trophic levels, then as those population densities decline, the potential for trophic-level dysfunction and associated instabilities will increase.

apex predators ecosystem stability fisheries effects food webs fractional trophic-level analysis gulf of Maine phase changes trophic cascades 



We thank Tim McClanahan for inviting us to write this paper and for his helpful critique. The research represented here has been funded by several sources, including the Pew Foundation for Marine Conservation, NOAA’s Sea Grant program to the University of Maine (to R.S.S.), Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (to R.S.S.), and the National Undersea Research Program’s National Research Center at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point (grants no. NA46RU0146 and UCAZP 94–121 to R.S.S.). Our colleagues shared insights and unpublished data for several kelp forest ecosystems worldwide and assisted us with analyses. In particular, we thank Susie Arnold, Chantale Bégin, Jim Estes, Michael Graham, Jeremy Jackson, Doug McNaught, Daniel Pauly, Bob Scheibling, Bob Vadas, our teams of summer interns, and two anonymous reviewers. To all we are grateful.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert S. Steneck
    • 1
  • John Vavrinec
    • 1
  • Amanda V. Leland
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Marine Sciences, Darling Marine CenterUniversity of MaineUSA

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