The Ocean Tipping Points project is a collaboration of natural and social scientists, lawyers, environmental managers, and stakeholders working to understand what drives abrupt ecological shifts, and how they might be prevented or reversed. In this initial blog, we introduce the concept of tipping points and highlight our latest research. In upcoming blogs, some of our researchers will present their work in more detail and discuss the implications for our case study regions and for the science and management community more widely.
Reaching a tipping point
Sea otters were once a common sight in kelp forests along vast expanses of the west coast of North America, until fur traders decimated nearly every otter population in the 1800s. Without otters, the kelp forests began to disappear. Sea urchin populations exploded in the absence of their main predators—otters—and started grazing down the kelp forests, creating a patchwork of ‘urchin barrens’ where kelp forests were once prolific. Without the complex habitat provided by kelp, numerous marine species, including commercially important fish, can lose their main source of food and shelter.