• algal assemblages;
  • biomass;
  • irradiance;
  • macroalgae;
  • photosynthesis;
  • primary production;
  • understory

Macroalgae are important primary producers in many subtidal habitats, yet little information exists on the temporal and spatial dynamics of net primary production (NPP) by entire subtidal assemblages. This knowledge gap reflects the logistical challenges in measuring NPP of diverse macroalgal assemblages in shallow marine habitats. Here, we couple a simple primary production model with nondestructive estimates of taxon-specific biomass on subtidal reefs off Santa Barbara, California to produce a 4-year time series of net primary production by intact assemblages of understory macroalgae in giant kelp forests off Santa Barbara, California, USA. Daily bottom irradiance varied significantly throughout the year, and algal assemblages were on average exposed to saturating irradiance for only 1.3–4.5 h per day, depending on the time of year. Despite these variable light-limiting conditions, biomass rather than irradiance explained the vast majority of variation observed in daily NPP at all times of the year. Measurements of peak biomass in spring and summer proved to be good predictors of NPP for the entire year, explaining as much as 76% of the observed variation. In contrast, bottom irradiance was a poor predictor of NPP, explaining <10% of the variation in NPP when analyzed seasonally and ~2% when evaluated annually. Our finding that annual NPP by macroalgal assemblages can be predicted from a single, nondestructive measurement of biomass should prove useful for developing time series data that are necessary to evaluate natural and anthropogenic changes in NPP by one of the world's most productive ecosystems.