Sea otters have been saving Pacific kelp forests from rapacious sea urchins
Pacific kelp forests took a big hit after a record die-off of starfish and an unprecedented marine heat wave
Marine kelp forests along the Pacific coast took quite a beating a few years ago.
These dense underwater coastal forests are one of the most productive ecosystems on our planet, that's also hugely important for regulating climate change. But since 2013, they've faced unprecedented challenges from a destructive environmental double whammy.
In a new study, Joshua Smith, a PhD candidate in marine biology at the University of California in Santa Cruz, found that sea otters are playing an important role in helping preserve these vital ecosystems.
In 2013, starfish along the Pacific coast were struck with sea-star wasting syndrome that caused their massive die-off from Alaska all the way down to Mexico.
The crash in the sea star population meant their prey, sea urchins, were free to come out of hiding and attack the kelp forests.
Then, in 2014 and 2015, an unprecedented marine heat wave raised coastal ocean temperatures by up to 4 degrees Celsius.
Kelp forests do much better in cooler waters, so the unusually warm ocean temperatures further decimated kelp forests along the coast.
Overgrazing by urchins and inhibition of growth in warm water resulted in a patchy mosaic of healthy kelp forests interspersed with bare, denuded seafloor that scientists have dubbed "sea urchin barrens."
Smith found sea otters have stepped up their predation on sea urchins, particularly in the remaining patches of kelp forest. As long as conditions don't worsen, these healthy kelp patches should eventually help re-seed the barrens and help the kelp forests recover.
Produced and written by Sonya Buyting