Document Type


Date of Original Version





It is important to view eutrophication as an increase in the supply of organic matter to an ecosystem rather than as a simple problem of nutrient pollution. This emphasizes that eutrophication is a fundamental change in the energetic base that may propagate through the system in various ways and produce a variety of changes. Some of these changes may be desirable (e.g., increased secondary production) and some may not (e.g., hypoxia). Defining eutrophication in terms of changing nutrient concentrations or chlorophyll levels or species composition confuses symptoms with the underlying phenomenon. While nutrient enrichment is the most common cause of eutrophication, it is not the only one. As recent and ongoing nutrient reductions make an impact in the coastal waters of the wealthier nations, we will see an increasing number of systems in which primary production is decreasing. This reduction in the supply of organic matter is here defined as oligotrophication, a phenomenon now well documented in lakes. So far, there has been little appreciation of this limnological study by coastal marine ecologists or managers, but there is much we can learn from it. The great ecologist H.T. Odum long argued that we need ‘macroscopes’ to help ecologists see the problems they study as they are embedded in the larger scales of nature and society. Marine eutrophication (and oligotrophication) is a perfect example of a problem that must be studied with a view toward the larger scales as well as toward the microscopic details. While much of the hardware (e.g., satellite imagery) for the mythical macroscope has been developed in the last 30 years, many ecologists and managers still look at eutrophication as a local problem linked to local sources of nutrient enrichment. Such a parochial view isolates eutrophication from its long intellectual history—a history that is linked to the development of our understanding of production in coastal waters. It also neglects the intellectual richness and complexity of eutrophication. One example of the importance of the macroscopic view is the emerging importance of climate-induced changes in phenology and the consequences of changing phenology on productivity. These changes may lead to eutrophication or oligotrophication. Climate changes may also exacerbate or alleviate conditions such as hypoxia that are associated with eutrophication. Seeing eutrophication in the macroscopic view is important for understanding and managing the phenomenon.