, Volume 108, Issue 1-3, pp 359-380
Date: 22 May 2011

Effect of nutrient loading on biogeochemical processes in tropical tidal creeks

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Abstract

The effect of increased nutrient loads on biogeochemical processes in macrotidal, mangrove-lined creeks was studied in tropical Darwin Harbour, Australia. This study uses an integrative approach involving multiple benthic and pelagic processes as measures of ecosystem function, and provides a comparison of these processes in three tidal creeks receiving different loads of treated sewage effluent. There were significant differences in process rates between Buffalo Creek (BC) (hypereutrophic), which receives the largest sewage loads; Myrmidon Creek (MC) (oligotrophic–mesotrophic) which receives smaller sewage inputs; and Reference Creek (RC) (oligotrophic) which is comparatively pristine. Benthic nutrient fluxes and denitrification were more than an order of magnitude higher and lower, respectively, in BC and denitrification efficiency (DE) was <10%. Pelagic primary production rates were also much higher in BC but respiration exceeded primary production resulting in severe drawdown of O2 concentrations at night. Hypoxic conditions released oxide-bound phosphorus and inhibited coupled nitrification–denitrification, enhancing benthic nitrogen and phosphorus fluxes, leading to a build-up of excess nutrients in the water column. Poor water quality in BC was exacerbated by limited tidal flushing imposed by a narrow meandering channel and sandbar across the mouth. In contrast to BC, the effect of the sewage load in MC was confined to the water column, and the impact was temporary and highly localized. This is attributed to the effective flushing of the sewage plume with each tidal cycle. Denitrification rates in MC and RC were high (up to 6.83 mmol N m−2 day−1) and DE was approximately 90%. This study has identified denitrification, benthic nutrient fluxes and pelagic primary production as the biogeochemical processes most affected by nutrient loading in these tidal creek systems. Physical process play a key role and the combined influence of nutrient loading and poor tidal flushing can have serious consequences for ecosystem functioning.