Balancing act: otters, urchins and kelp

Learn about the connections among sea otters, sea urchins, kelp forests, and climate change. This video shows how conservation of wildlife can have an impact on global climate change. It provides examples of how healthy, balanced ecosystems will be the best offense in a rapidly changing ocean environment. This video is part of our Ocean Acidification Education series.

Kelp forests are extremely productive ecosystems that support a huge amount of marine life, and they are also efficient absorbers of CO2. Like any land-based forest, kelp forests sequester (take out) CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, transforming it into the energy they need to build their leafy structure. Kelp forests are at risk from sea urchins, small spiky marine animals that love to eat kelp. With no predators around, sea urchin populations can multiply, forming herds that sweep across the ocean floor devouring entire stands of kelp and leaving “urchin barrens” in their place.

Fortunately, sea otters have an appetite for sea urchins and they help to keep sea urchins in check, allowing the kelp to flourish and capture CO2. When otters are present, urchins hide in crevices and snack on kelp scraps. The kelp can flourish, providing habitat for many ocean organisms. Sea otters play a small role in mitigating global climate change, but their impact points to a larger lesson: wildlife conservation can save vegetation needed to reduce CO2.

Text by Jennifer Morton, Quest, 25 February 2014. Text and video.

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