Marine Biology

, 166:108 | Cite as

Nitrogen enrichment, altered stoichiometry, and coral reef decline at Looe Key, Florida Keys, USA: a 3-decade study

  • Brian E. LapointeEmail author
  • Rachel A. Brewton
  • Laura W. Herren
  • James W. Porter
  • Chuanmin Hu
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Increased loadings of nitrogen (N) from fertilizers, top soil, sewage, and atmospheric deposition are important drivers of eutrophication in coastal waters globally. Monitoring seawater and macroalgae can reveal long-term changes in N and phosphorus (P) availability and N:P stoichiometry that are critical to understanding the global crisis of coral reef decline. Analysis of a unique 3-decade data set for Looe Key reef, located offshore the lower Florida Keys, showed increased dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), chlorophyll a, DIN:soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) ratios, as well as higher tissue C:P and N:P ratios in macroalgae during the early 1990s. These data, combined with remote sensing and nutrient monitoring between the Everglades and Looe Key, indicated that the significant DIN enrichment between 1991 and 1995 at Looe Key coincided with increased Everglades runoff, which drains agricultural and urban areas extending north to Orlando, Florida. This resulted in increased P limitation of reef primary producers that can cause metabolic stress in stony corals. Outbreaks of stony coral disease, bleaching, and mortality between 1995 and 2000 followed DIN enrichment, algal blooms, and increased DIN:SRP ratios, suggesting that eutrophication interacted with other factors causing coral reef decline at Looe Key. Although water temperatures at Looe Key exceeded the 30.5 °C bleaching threshold repeatedly over the 3-decade study, the three mass bleaching events occurred only when DIN:SRP ratios increased following heavy rainfall and increased Everglades runoff. These results suggest that Everglades discharges, in conjunction with local nutrient sources, contributed to DIN enrichment, eutrophication, and increased N:P ratios at Looe Key, exacerbating P limitation, coral stress and decline. Improved management of water quality at the local and regional levels could moderate N inputs and maintain more balanced N:P stoichiometry, thereby reducing the risk of coral bleaching, disease, and mortality under the current level of temperature stress.



This research was inspired by early discussions with John Ryther, Peter Glynn, Charlie Yentsch, and Phil Dustan. Dr. Larry Brand provided assistance with chlorophyll a analysis and Carl Zimmerman provided nutrient analytical support. Many staff, volunteers, and colleagues assisted with logistics and field monitoring efforts in the Keys over the long-term study, including Roger Bewig, Julie Bishop, Richard and Barbara Brown, Mark and Diane Littler, Mark Clark, Bill Matzie, David Tomasko, Peter Barile, Maggie Vogelsang, John November, Diana Bolton, Carl Hampp, Marie Tarnowski, and Tanju Mishara. Strike Zone Charters and the Looe Key Reef Resort Dive Shop provided boat support for many sampling events. The authors are grateful to Alex Tewfik, Elizabeth Babcock, Ed Proffitt, and several anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. The authors also wish to thank the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, and NOAA for providing satellite data and imagery. This is contribution #2210 from Florida Atlantic University, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.


Financial support for this research was provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, National Marine Sanctuaries Program), Monroe County, Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ROSES (contract #NNX10AB69G), the “Save Our Seas” Specialty License Plate funds granted through the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, and the Coastal Ocean Association of Science and Technology (COAST).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights statement

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harbor Branch Oceanographic InstituteFlorida Atlantic UniversityFort PierceUSA
  2. 2.Odum School of EcologyUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  3. 3.College of Marine ScienceUniversity of South FloridaSt. PetersburgUSA

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