Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 37, Supplement 1, pp 222-241

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Seasonal and Inter-annual Patterns in Primary Production, Respiration, and Net Ecosystem Metabolism in Three Estuaries in the Northeast Gulf of Mexico

  • Jane M. CaffreyAffiliated withCenter for Diagnostics and Bioremediation, University of West Florida Email author 
  • , Michael C. MurrellAffiliated withGulf Ecology Division, U S Environmental Protection Agency Email author 
  • , Kendra S. AmackerAffiliated withCenter for Diagnostics and Bioremediation, University of West Florida
  • , Jennifer W. HarperAffiliated withApalachicola Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
  • , Scott PhippsAffiliated withWeeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
  • , Mark S. WoodreyAffiliated withGrand Bay National Estuarine Research ReserveCoastal Research and Extension Center, Mississippi State University


Measurements of primary production and respiration provide fundamental information about the trophic status of aquatic ecosystems, yet such measurements are logistically difficult and expensive to sustain as part of long-term monitoring programs. However, ecosystem metabolism parameters can be inferred from high frequency water quality data collections using autonomous logging instruments. For this study, we analyzed such time series datasets from three Gulf of Mexico estuaries: Grand Bay, MS; Weeks Bay, AL; and Apalachicola Bay, FL. Data were acquired from NOAA's National Estuarine Research Reserve System Wide Monitoring Program and used to calculate gross primary production (GPP), ecosystem respiration (ER), and net ecosystem metabolism (NEM) using Odum's open water method. The three systems represent a diversity of estuaries typical of the Gulf of Mexico region, varying by as much as two orders of magnitude in key physical characteristics, such as estuarine area, watershed area, freshwater flow, and nutrient loading. In all three systems, GPP and ER displayed strong seasonality, peaking in summer and being lowest during winter. Peak rates of GPP and ER exceeded 200 mmol O2 m−2 day−1 in all three estuaries. To our knowledge, this is the first study examining long-term trends in rates of GPP, ER, and NEM in estuaries. Variability in metabolism tended to be small among sites within each estuary. Nitrogen loading was highest in Weeks Bay, almost two times greater than that in Apalachicola Bay and 35 times greater than to Grand Bay. These differences in nitrogen loading were reflected in average annual GPP rates, which ranged from 825 g C m−2 year−1 in Weeks Bay to 401 g C m−2 year−1 for Apalachicola Bay and 377 g C m−2 year−1 in Grand Bay. Despite the strong inter-annual patterns in freshwater flow and salinity, variability in metabolic rates was low, perhaps reflecting shifts in the relative importance of benthic and phytoplankton productivity, during different flow regimes. The advantage of the open water method is that it uses readily available and cost-effective sonde monitoring technology to estimate these fundamental estuarine processes, thus providing a potential means for examining long-term trends in net carbon balance. It also provides a historical benchmark for comparison to ongoing and future monitoring focused on documenting the effect of human activities on the coastal zone.


Net ecosystem metabolism Primary production Community respiration National Estuarine Research Reserves