Nearshore kelp forest ecosystems are highly vulnerable to climate change and ocean warming, which can alter community dynamics and change the trajectory of species recovery in unpredictable ways. Abalone (Haliotis spp.) populations in the Southern California Bight (SCB) are still recovering from a combination of overfishing and disease, despite the closure of the fisheries 20 years ago and active restoration programs for abalone species in the region. For this study, abalone recruitment and sea urchin populations were surveyed in artificial habitats (16–22 m) across a spatial and temporal climatic gradient in southern California from 2010 to 2017 to inform the development of climate-ready abalone restoration programs. The SCB encompasses warm and cool islands, and experienced two periods of ocean conditions—cool (2010–2013) and warm ocean conditions (2014–2016). Dive surveys of the artificial habitats revealed that juvenile abalone recruitment remained low during the study period, suggesting that recovery is slow. Warm-water years favored recruitment of juvenile pink (Haliotis corrugata) and green abalone (Haliotis fulgens), with the highest abalone recruitment observed at Catalina Island. Endangered white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) were not observed despite placing the artificial habitats in suitable deep rocky reefs, which is further evidence supporting their endangered species status. The coolest site, San Diego, had little abalone recruitment, with a few juvenile red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) and threaded (Haliotis kamtschatkana) abalone present. Sea urchin abundance and diversity increased during the warm period, with the largest increase at Catalina Island. During the warm period, Coronado sea urchin (Centrostephanus coronatus) increased in abundance, coincident with a decrease in the commercially valuable temperate red sea urchin (Mesocentrotus franciscanus). Potential shifts in the sea urchin assemblage to warm-water sea urchins may negatively impact recovering abalone populations and the red sea urchin fishery. Climate-ready abalone restoration will require ecosystem-based monitoring, tracking on not only abalone recruitment but also sea urchins, algal abundances, ocean temperature, and kelp forest communities as climate change may lead to complex and unexpected ecosystem interactions.
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Vol. 38 • No. 2