Temperate marine ecosystems globally are undergoing regime shifts from dominance by habitat-forming kelps to dominance by opportunistic algal turfs. While the environmental drivers of shifts to turf are generally well-documented, the feedback mechanisms that stabilize novel turf-dominated ecosystems remain poorly resolved. Here, we document a decline of kelp Saccharina latissima between 1980 and 2018 at sites at the southernmost extent of kelp forests in the Northwest Atlantic and their replacement by algal turf. We examined the drivers of a shift to turf and feedback mechanisms that stabilize turf reefs. Kelp replacement by turf was linked to a significant multi-decadal increase in sea temperature above an upper thermal threshold for kelp survival. In the turf-dominated ecosystem, 45% of S. latissima were attached to algal turf rather than rocky substrate due to preemption of space. Turf-attached kelp required significantly (2 to 4 times) less force to detach from the substrate, with an attendant pattern of lower survival following 2 major wave events as compared to rock-attached kelp. Turf-attached kelp allocated a significantly greater percentage of their biomass to the anchoring structure (holdfast), with a consequent energetic trade-off of slower growth. The results indicate a shift in community dominance from kelp to turf driven by thermal stress and stabilized by ecological feedbacks of lower survival and slower growth of kelp recruited to turf.