Nutrients and the productivity of estuarine and coastal marine ecosystems

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Recent research on estuarine and coastal marine systems has revealed two particularly interesting things about nutrients and productivity. First is the observation that these areas are among the most intensively fertilized environments on earth. Second is the common finding that much of the characteristically high primary productivity of these shallow waters is supported by nutrients released or recycled by pelagic and benthic microheterotrophs. Since nutrient inputs to coastal areas have probably been increasing and are likely to continue to do so, it is particularly important to understand the relationship between nutrient loading and nutrient cycling and the extent to which their interactions may set the levels of primary and secondary production in coastal systems. That some direct relationship exists between the input of nutrients and the productivity of higher trophic levels has been a principle of marine ecology since the turn of the century. It is surprisingly difficult, however, to find quantitative evidence showing that estuaries, lagoons, or other coastal waters respond to eutrophication by producing a larger biomass of animals. Part of this difficulty arises because the amount of nitrogen or phosphorus incorporated in animal tissue is a very small term in the total nutrient budget of an estuary, and the accuracy and precision of ecological field measurements may not be adequate to the task. In addition, the response of natural systems to nutrient enrichment is compounded by changes in climate, hydrography, harvesting effort and technology, and pollution. Attempts to avoid some of these problems by carrying out controlled nutrient addition experiments in the field or with mesocosms have been much rarer in marine ecology than in limnology. The results that are available for such studies seem to suggest that there is a modest enhancement of primary production with nutrient addition, but that most of this extra organic matter is rapidly consumed, presumably by microheterotrophs. In other words, as nutrient inputs rise, so does the rate of nutrient recycling.Only a small fraction of the added nutrients appears as an increment in the production of higher trophic levels. © Limnological Society of southern Africa.

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Journal of the Limnological Society of Southern Africa