Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 46, Issue 4, pp 597–611 | Cite as

Assessing changes in nutrient status in the Richmond River estuary, Australia, using paleolimnological methods

  • Brendan Logan
  • Kathryn H. Taffs
  • Bradley D. Eyre
  • Atun Zawadski
Original paper


Eutrophication from nutrient over-enrichment is a serious problem for the coastal zone and the estuarine environment globally. Australian estuaries are generally oligotrophic, but assessing whether they are becoming more eutrophic over time is inhibited by a lack of long-term monitoring data. The Richmond River, Australia, provided an ideal example of an estuary under anthropogenic pressure where the use of paleoecological techniques may potentially be used to reconstruct changes in nutrient status over time. Five cores were extracted from depositional areas in the Richmond River, and subjected to paleo-magnetic profiling and loss-on-ignition testing to ensure the core of greatest integrity was selected for further analytical work. Results from diatom and stable isotope analyses combined with 210Pb and AMS 14C dating show a strong indication that the total phosphorus levels in the Richmond River have fluctuated since 1940. Evidence also suggests that these fluctuations are most likely a function of climate. This study has successfully applied paleolimnological techniques to the estuarine environment to produce information that can be used by environmental managers to aid decision making in relation to nutrient control for the Richmond River. Further work using paleolimnological techniques should be aimed at the extraction of a core containing diatoms that pre-date European settlement and include analyses of specific lipids and fatty acid biomarkers.


Diatoms Estuaries Sub-tropical Total phosphorus Stable isotopes Australia 



We thank Steve Logan, Rod Latimer, Ben Andrews and Peter O’Neill for their assistance with field work; Melissa Bautista for help with stable isotope analyses; Geraldine Jacobsen for assistance with 14C analyses; Damien Maher, Tracey Buss and Dirk Erler for comments on the manuscript. We also thank John Tibby, Krystyna Saunders and an anonymous reviewer whose comments improved the manuscript.


  1. Admiraal W, Peletier H (1979) Sulfide tolerance of benthic diatoms in relation to their distribution in an estuary. Brit Phycol J 14:185–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson NJ (1993) Natural versus anthropogenic change in lakes: the role of the sediment record. Trends Ecol Evol 8:356–361CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andrén E (1999) Changes in composition of the Diatom flora during the last century indicate increased eutrophication of the Oder Estuary, South-western Baltic Sea. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 48:665–676CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Andrén E, Shimmield G, Brand T (1999) Environmental changes of the last three centuries indicated by siliceous microfossil records from the southwestern Baltic Sea. Holocene 9:25–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Appleby PG, Oldfield F (1983) The assessment of 210Pb data from sites with varying sediment accumulation rates. Hydrobiologia 103:29–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bengtsson L, Enell M (1986) Chemical Analysis. In: Berglund BE (ed) Handbook of Holocene palaeoecology and palaeoydrology. Wiley, New York, pp 423–449Google Scholar
  7. Bigler C, von Gunten L, Lotter AF, Hausmann S, Blass A, Ohlendorf C, Sturm M (2007) Quantifying human-induced eutrophication in Swiss mountain lakes since AD 1800 using diatoms. Holocene 17:1141–1154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bloom AM, Moser KA, Porinchu DF, MacDonald GM (2003) Diatom-inference models for surface-water temperature and salinity developed from a 57-lake calibration set from the Sierre Nevada, California, USA. J Paleolimnol 29:235–255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. BOM (2009) Bureau of meteorology. Online Australian climate information. Available at [Date Retrieved 23 September 2009]
  10. Bricker SB, Ferreira JG, Simas T (2003) An integrated methodology for assessment of estuarine trophic status. Ecol Modell 169:39–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cloern JE (2001) Our evolving conceptual model of the coastal eutrophication problem. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 210:223–253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Colman SM, Baucom PC, Bratton JF, Cronin TM, McGeehin JP, Willard D, Zimmerman AR, Vogt PR (2002) Radiocarbon dating, chronologic framework, and change in accumulation rates of Holocene estuarine sediments from Chesapeake Bay. Quatern Res 57:58–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cooper SR, Brush GS (1993) A 2500-year history of anoxia and eutrophication in Chesapeake Bay. Estuaries 16:617–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cooper SR, McGlothin SK, Madritch M, Jones DL (2004) Paleoecological evidence of human impacts on the Neuse and Pamlico Estuaries of North Carolina, USA. Estuaries 27:617–633CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Daley LT (2001) A short history of the Richmond River. Richmond River Historical Society Inc, LismoreGoogle Scholar
  16. Davis RJ, Koop K (2006) Eutrophication in Australian rivers, reservoirs and estuaries—a southern hemisphere perspective on the science and its implications. Hydrobiologia 559:23–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eyre BD (1997) Water quality changes in an episodically flushed sub-tropical Australian estuary: a 50 year perspective. Mar Chem 59:177–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Eyre BD (1998) Transport, retention and transformation of material in Australian estuaries. Estuaries 21:540–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Eyre BD, Pont D (2003) Intra- and inter-annual variability in the different forms of diffuse nitrogen and phosphorus delivered to seven sub-tropical east Australian estuaries. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 57:137–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Eyre B, Twigg C (1997) Nutrient behaviour during post-flood recovery of the Richmond River Estuary, northern NSW, Australia. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 44:311–326CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fluin J, Gell PA, Haynes D, Tibby J, Hancock G (2007) Palaeolimnological evidence for the independent evolution of neighbouring terminal lakes, the Murray Darling Basin, Australia. Hydrobiologia 591:117–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Foged N (1978) Diatoms in Eastern Australia. Bibliotheca Phycologica, 47Google Scholar
  23. Gabric AJ, Bell PRF (1993) Review of the effects of non-point source nutrient loading on coastal ecosystems. Aust J Mar Freshw Res 44:261–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gell PA, Sonneman JA, Reid MA, Illman MA, Sincock AJ (1999) An illustrated key to the common diatom genera from southern Australia—identification Guide No. 26, Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater EcologyGoogle Scholar
  25. Gikas GD, Yiannakopoulou T, Tsihrintzis VA (2006) Water quality trends in a coastal lagoon impacted by non-point source pollution after implementation of protective measures. Hydrobiologia 563:385–406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Glibert PM, Heil CA, Oneil JMO, Dennison WC, O’Donohue MJH (2006) Nitrogen, phosphorus, silica and carbon in Moreton Bay, Queensland, Australia; differential limitation of phytoplankton biomass and production. Estuar Coast 29:209–221CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hall RI, Smol JP (1999) Diatoms as indicators of lake eutrophication. In: Stoermer EF, Smol JP (eds) The Diatoms: applications for the environmental and earth sciences. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  28. Hashimoto TR, Saintilan N, Haberle SG (2006) Mid-Holocene development of mangrove communities featuring Rhizophoraceae and geomorphic change in the Richmond River estuary, New South Wales, Australia. Geogr Res 44:63–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Haynes D, Gell PA, Tibby J, Hancock G, Goonan P (2007) Against the tide: the freshening of naturally saline coastal lakes, southeastern South Australia. Hydrobiologia 591:165–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Heiri O, Lotter AF, Lemcke G (2001) Loss on ignition as a method for estimating organic and carbonate content in sediments: reproducibility and comparability of results. J Paleolimnol 25:101–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hilgartner WB, Brush GS (2006) Prehistoric habitat stability and post-settlement habitat change in a Chesapeake Bay freshwater tidal wetland, USA. Holocene 16:479–494CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hossain S (1998) Hydrology and suspended sediment transport in the Richmond River catchment and estuary, NSW, Australia. PhD Thesis. Centre for Coastal Management, Southern Cross University, LismoreGoogle Scholar
  33. Hossain S, Eyre BD, McConchie D (2004) Dry season suspended sediment concentration and sedimentation in the Richmond River estuary, northern NSW, Australia. Aust J Soil Res 42:203–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kauppilla P, Meeuwig JJ, Pitkanen H (2003) Predicting oxygen in small estuaries of the Baltic Sea: a comparative approach. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 57:1115–1126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kieckbush DK, Koch MS, Serafy JE, Anderson WT (2004) Trophic linkages among primary producers and consumers in fringing mangroves of subtropical lagoons. Bull Mar Sci 74:271–285Google Scholar
  36. Koster D, Pienitz R, Wolfe BB, Barry S, Foster DR, Dixit SS (2005) Paleolimnological assessment of human-induced impacts on Walden Pond (Massachusetts, USA) using diatoms and stable isotopes. Aquat Ecosyst Health Manag 8:117–131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kronvang B, Grant R, Larsen SE, Svendsen LM, Krsitensen P (1995) Non-point source nutrient losses to the aquatic environment in Denmark: impact of agriculture. Mar Freshw Res 46:167–177Google Scholar
  38. Leng MJ, Lamb AL, Heaton THE, Marshall JD, Wolfe BB, Jones MD, Holmes JA, Arrowsmith C (2006) Isotopes in lake sediments. In: Leng MJ (ed) Isotopes in palaeoenvironmental research. Springer, Berlin, pp 147–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Leslie C, Hancock GJ (2008) Estimating the date corresponding to the horizon of the first detection of 137Cs and 239 + 240Pu in sediment cores. J Environ Radioact 99:483–490CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Logan B, Taffs KH (submitted) The Burrum River estuary: identifying reference sites for Australian subtropical estuarine systems using paleolimnological methods. J PaleolimnolGoogle Scholar
  41. Maksymowska D, Richard P, Piekarek-Jankowska H, Riera P (2000) Chemical and isotopic composition of the organic matter sources in the Gulf of Gdansk (Southern Baltic Sea). Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 51:585–598CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Maslin MA, Swann GEA (2006) Isotopes in marine sediments. In: Leng MJ (ed) Isotopes in palaeoenvironmental research. Springer, Berlin, pp 227–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McKee L, Eyre B, Hossain S (2000) Intra- and Interannual export of nitrogen and phosphorus in the subtropical Richmond River catchment, Australia. Hydrol Process 14:1787–1809CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Miller U, Risberg J (1990) Environmental changes, mainly eutrophication, as recorded by fossil siliceous micro-algae in two cores from the uppermost sediments of the north-western Baltic. Beiheft zur Nova Hedwigia 100:237–253Google Scholar
  45. Natori Y, Haneda A, Suzuki Y (2006) Vertical and seasonal differences in biogenic silica dissolution in natural seawater in Suruga Bay, Japan: effects of temperature and organic matter. Mar Chem 102:230–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Newell RIE, Marshall N, Sasekumar A, Chong VC (1995) Relative importance of benthic microalgae, phytoplankton, and mangroves as sources of nutrition for penaeid prawns and other coastal invertebrates from Malaysia. Mar Biol 123:595–606CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. OzCoasts (2008) Australian Online Coastal Information [] Retrieved 30 January 2009
  48. Parr JF, Taffs KH, Lane CM (2004) A microwave digestion technique for the extraction of fossil diatoms from coastal lake and swamp sediments. J Paleolimnol 31:383–390CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Reavie ED, Hall RI, Smol JP (1995) An expanded weighted-averaging model for inferring past total phosphorus concentrations from diatom assemblages in eutrophic British Columbia (Canada) lakes. J Paleolimnol 14:49–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Reid M (2005) Diatom-based models for reconstructing past water quality and productivity in New Zealand lakes. J Paleolimnol 33:13–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rosén P, Hall R, Korsman T, Renberg I (2000) Diatom transfer-functions for quantifying past air temperature, pH and total organic carbon concentration from lakes in northern Sweden. J Paleolimnol 24:109–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Roubeix V, Becquevort S, Lancelot C (2008) Influence of bacteria and salinity on diatom biogenic silica dissolution in estuarine systems. Biogeochemistry 88:47–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Roy PS, Williams RJ, Jones AR, Yassini I, Gibbs PJ, Coates B, West RJ, Scanes JP, Nichol S (2001) Structure and function of south-east Australian estuaries. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 53:351–384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Saunders KM (submitted) Development of diatom-based inference models for assessing coastal water quality, natural variability and human impacts in southeast mainland Australia and Tasmania. J PaleolimnolGoogle Scholar
  55. Saunders KM, Taffs KH (2009) Palaeoecology: a tool to improve the management of estuaries. J Environ Manag 90:2730–2736CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Saunders KM, Hodgson DA, Harrison J, McMinn A (2008) Palaeoecological tools for improving the management of coastal ecosystems: a case study from Lake King (Gippsland Lakes) Australia. J Paleolimnol 40:33–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Scanes P, Coade G, Doherty M, Hill R (2007) Evaluation of the utility of water quality based indicators of estuarine lagoon condition in NSW. Australia. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 74:306–319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Siver PA (1999) Development of paleolimnological inference models for pH, total nitrogen and specific conductivity based on planktonic diatoms. J Paleolimnol 21:45–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Smith SDA, Rule MJ, Harrison M, Dalton SJ (2008) Monitoring the sea change: preliminary assessment of the conservation value of nearshore reefs, and existing impacts in a high-growth, coastal region of subtropical eastern Australia. Mar Poll Bull 56:525–534CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. SoE (2006) State of the environment report. Australian Commonwealth Government Department of Environment and Heritage. Available at:
  61. Stuiver M, Reimer PJ (1993) Extended 14C database and revised CALIB radiocarbon calibration program. Radiocarbon 35:215–230Google Scholar
  62. Taffs K (2005) Diatoms of Northern New South Wales, Australia. Unpublished dataset, Southern Cross University, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  63. Taffs KH, Farago LJ, Heijns H, Jacobsen G (2008) A diatom-based Holocene record of human impact from a coastal environment: Tuckean Swamp, eastern Australia. J Paleolimnol 39:71–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Tibby J, Reid MA (2004) A model for inferring past conductivity in low salinity waters derived from Murray River (Australia) diatom plankton. Mar Freshw Res 55:597–607CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Vaalgamaa S (2004) The effect of urbanisation on Laajalahti Bay, Helsinki City, as reflected by sediment geochemistry. Mar Poll Bull 48:650–662CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Valiela I, Geist M, McClelland J, Tomasky G (2000) Nitrogen loading from watersheds to estuaries: verification of the Waquoit Bay Nitrogen Loading Model. Biogeochemistry 49:277–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Weckström K (2006) Assessing recent eutrophication in coastal waters of the Gulf Of Finland (Baltic Sea) using subfossil diatoms. J Paleolimnol 35:571–592CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Whitmore TJ, Brenner M, Curtis JH, Dahlin BH, Leyden BW (1996) Holocene climatic and human influences on lakes of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico: an interdisciplinary, palaeolimnological apporach. Holocene 6:273–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Witkowski A, Lange-Bertelot H, Metzeltin S (2000) Diatom flora of marine coasts 1. In: Lange-Bertelot H (ed) Iconographia Diatomologica, vol 1. Koeltz Scientific Books, GermanyGoogle Scholar
  70. Woodward CA, Shulmeister J (2006) New Zealand chironomids as proxies for human-induced and natural environmental change: transfer functions for temperature and lake production (chlorophyll a). J Paleolimnol 36:407–429CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brendan Logan
    • 1
  • Kathryn H. Taffs
    • 1
  • Bradley D. Eyre
    • 1
  • Atun Zawadski
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Environmental Science and ManagementSouthern Cross UniversityLismoreAustralia
  2. 2.ANSTO Institute for Environmental ResearchLucas HeightsAustralia

Personalised recommendations