Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 37, Supplement 1, pp 3-19

First online:

Drivers of Change in Shallow Coastal Photic Systems: An Introduction to a Special Issue

  • Michael J. KennishAffiliated withInstitute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University Email author 
  • , Mark J. BrushAffiliated withVirginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary
  • , Kenneth A. MooreAffiliated withVirginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary

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Coastal ecosystems are characterized by relatively deep, plankton-based estuaries and much shallower systems where light reaches the bottom. These latter systems, including lagoons, bar-built estuaries, the fringing regions of deeper systems, and other systems of only a few meters deep, are characterized by a variety of benthic primary producers that augment and, in many cases, dominate the production supplied by phytoplankton. These “shallow coastal photic systems” are subject to a wide variety of both natural and anthropogenic drivers and possess numerous natural “filters” that modulate their response to these drivers; in many cases, the responses are much different from those in deeper estuaries. Natural drivers include meteorological forcing, freshwater inflow, episodic events such as storms, wet/dry periods, and background loading of optically active constituents. Anthropogenic drivers include accelerated inputs of nutrients and sediments, chemical contaminants, physical alteration and hydrodynamic manipulation, climate change, the presence of intensive aquaculture, fishery harvests, and introduction of exotic species. The response of these systems is modulated by a number of factors, notably bathymetry, physical flushing, fetch, sediment type, background light attenuation, and the presence of benthic autotrophs, suspension feeding bivalves, and fringing tidal wetlands. Finally, responses to stressors in these systems, particularly anthropogenic nutrient enrichment, consist of blooms of phytoplankton, macroalgae, and epiphytic algae, including harmful algal blooms, subsequent declines in submerged aquatic vegetation and loss of critical habitat, development of hypoxia/anoxia particularly on short time scales (i.e., “diel-cycling”), fish kills, and loss of secondary production. This special issue of Estuaries and Coasts serves to integrate current understanding of the structure and function of shallow coastal photic systems, illustrate the many drivers that cause change in these systems, and synthesize their varied responses.


Coastal lagoons Coastal bays Bar-built estuaries Natural and anthropogenic stressors Drivers of change Primary and secondary production Microbial and hydrological processes Algal blooms Climate change effects Eutrophication Conceptual model Restoration