Distribution and trophic importance of anthropogenic nitrogen in Narragansett Bay: An assessment using stable isotopes

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Narragansett Bay has been heavily influenced by human activities for more than 200 years. In recent decades, it has been one of the more intensively fertilized estuaries in the USA, with most of the anthropogenic nutrient load originating from sewage treatment plants (STP). This will soon change as tertiary treatment upgrades reduce nitrogen (N) loads by about one third or more during the summer. Before these reductions take place, we sought to characterize the sewage N signature in primary (macroalgae) and secondary (the hard clam, Mercenaria mercenaria) producers in the bay using stable isotopes of N (δ15N) and carbon (δ13C). The δ15N signatures of the macroalgae show a clear gradient of approximately 4‰ from north to south, i.e., high to low point source loading. There is also evidence of a west to east gradient of heavy to light values of δ15N in the bay consistent with circulation patterns and residual flows. The Providence River Estuary, just north of Narragansett Bay proper, receives 85% of STP inputs to Narragansett Bay, and lower δ15N values in macroalgae there reflected preferential uptake of 14N in this heavily fertilized area. Differences in pH from N stimulated photosynthesis and related shifts in predominance of dissolved C species may control the observed δ13C signatures. Unlike the macroalgae, the clams were remarkably uniform in both δ15N (13.2±0.54‰ SD) and δ13C (-16.76±0. 61‰ SD) throughout the bay, and the δ15N values were 2-5‰ heavier than in clams collected outside the bay. We suggest that this remarkable uniformity reflects a food source of anthropogenically heavy phytoplankton formed in the upper bay and supported by sewage derived N. We estimate that approximately half of the N in the clams throughout Narragansett Bay may be from anthropogenic sources. © 2007 Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation.

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Estuaries and Coasts