Accelerating Trophic-level Dysfunction in Kelp Forest Ecosystems of the Western North Atlantic
- First Online:
- 756 Downloads
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.