Climate change cascades: shifts in oceanography, species’ ranges and subtidal marine community dynamics in eastern Tasmania


Several lines of evidence show that ocean warming off the east coast of Tasmania is the result of intensification of the East Australian Current (EAC). Increases in the strength, duration and frequency of southward incursions of warm, nutrient poor EAC water transports heat and biota to eastern Tasmania. This shift in large-scale oceanography is reflected by changes in the structure of nearshore zooplankton communities and other elements of the pelagic system; by a regional decline in the extent of dense beds of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera); by marked changes in the distribution of nearshore fishes; and by range expansions of other northern warmer-water species to colonize Tasmanian coastal waters. Population-level changes in commercially important invertebrate species may also be associated with the warming trend.

Over-grazing of seaweed beds by one recently established species, the sea urchin Centrostephanus rodgersii, is causing a fundamental shift in the structure and dynamics of Tasmanian rocky reef systems by the formation of sea urchin ‘barrens’ habitat. Formation of barrens represents an interaction between effects of climate change and a reduction in large predatory rock lobsters due to fishing. Barrens realize a loss of biodiversity and production from rocky reefs, and threaten valuable abalone and rock lobster fisheries and the local economies and social communities they support. This range-extending sea urchin species represents the single largest biologically mediated threat to the integrity of important shallow water rocky reef communities in eastern Tasmania.

In synthesizing change in the physical ocean climate in eastern Tasmania and parallel shifts in species' distributions and ecological processes, there is evidence that the direct effects of changing physical conditions have precipitated cascading effects of ecological change in benthic (rocky reef) and pelagic systems. However, some patterns correlated with temperature have plausible alternative explanations unrelated to thermal gradients in time or space. We identify important knowledge gaps that need to be addressed to adequately understand, anticipate and adapt to future climate-driven changes in marine systems in the region.

Research Highlights
► Intensification of EAC leads to large changes in marine systems in eastern Tasmania. ► Range-extending sea urchins pose significant threat to rocky reefs and key fisheries. ► Large-scale oceanographic change is reflected by change in zooplankton communities. ► Dramatic decline in giant kelp beds as a result of climate change in eastern Tasmania. ► Oceanographic change precipitates cascading ecological change in eastern Tasmania.


Johnson Craig R., Banks Sam C., Barrett Neville S., Cazassus Fabienne, Dunstan Piers K., Edgar Graham J., Frusher Stewart D., Gardner Caleb, Haddon Malcolm, Helidoniotis Fay, Hill Katy L., Holbrook Neil J., Hosie Graham W., Last Peter R., Ling Scott D., Melbourne-Thomas Jessica, Miller Karen, Pecl Gretta T., Richardson Anthony J., Ridgway Ken R., Rintoul Stephen R., Ritz David A., Ross D. Jeff, Sanderson J. Craig, Shepherd Scoresby A., Slotwinski Anita, Swadling Kerrie M., Taw Nyan




Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology

Reference Type:






Australian Temperate Reef Collaboration

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