Nutrient changes in the Mississippi River and system responses on the adjacent continental shelf
The Mississippi River system ranks among the world's top 10 rivers in freshwater and sediment inputs to the coastal ocean. The river contributes 90% of the freshwater loading to the Gulf of Mexico, and terminates amidst one of the United States' most productive fisheries regions and the location of the largest zone of hypoxia, in the western Atlantic Ocean. Significant increases in riverine nutrient concentrations and loadings of nitrate and phosphorus and decreases in silicate have occurred this century, and have accelerated since 1950. Consequently, major alterations have occurred in the probable nutrient limitation and overall stoichiometric nutrient balance in the adjacent continental shelf system. Changes in the nutrient balances and reduction in riverine silica loading to, the continental shelf appear to have led to phytoplankton species shifts offshore and to an increase in primary production. The phytoplankton community response, as indicated by long-term changes in biological uptake of silicate and accumulation of biologically bound silica in sediments, has shown how the system has responded to changes in riverine nutrient loadings. Indeed, the accumulation of biologically bound silica in sediments beneath the Mississippi River plume increased during the past two decades, presumably in response to, increased nitrogen loading. The duration, size, and severity of hypoxia has probably increased as a consequence of the increased primary production. Management alternatives directed at water pollution issues within the Mississippi River watershed may have unintended and contrasting impacts on the coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico.