Global-scale changes in anthropogenic nutrient input into marine ecosystems via terrestrial runoff, coupled with widespread predator removal via fishing, have created greater urgency for understanding the relative role of top-down versus bottom-up control of food web dynamics. Yet recent large-scale studies of community regulation in marine ecosystems have shown dramatically different results that leave this issue largely unresolved. We combined a multiyear, large-scale data set of species abundances for 46 species in kelp forests from the California Channel Islands with satellite-derived primary production and found that top-down control explains 7- to 10-fold more of the variance in abundance of bottom and mid-trophic levels than does bottom-up control. This top-down control was propagated via a variety of species-level direct and indirect responses to predator abundance. Management of top-down influences such as fishing may be more important in coastal marine ecosystems, particularly in kelp forest systems, than is commonly thought. The community structure and biomass of California kelp forests are largely controlled by top-down factors such as predatory fish, rather than by levels of dissolved nutrients. The community structure and biomass of California kelp forests are largely controlled by top-down factors such as predatory fish, rather than by levels of dissolved nutrients.