Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 134–148 | Cite as

Scientific Bases for Numerical Chlorophyll Criteria in Chesapeake Bay

  • L. W. HardingJr.Email author
  • R. A. Batiuk
  • T. R. Fisher
  • C. L. Gallegos
  • T. C. Malone
  • W. D. Miller
  • M. R. Mulholland
  • H. W. Paerl
  • E. S. Perry
  • P. Tango


In coastal ecosystems with long flushing times (weeks to months) relative to phytoplankton growth rates (hours to days), chlorophyll a (chl-a) integrates nutrient loading, making it a pivotal indicator with broad implications for ecosystem function and water-quality management. However, numerical chl-a criteria that capture the linkage between chl-a and ecosystem impairments associated with eutrophication (e.g., hypoxia, water clarity and loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, toxic algal blooms) have seldom been developed despite the vulnerability of these ecosystems to anthropogenic nutrient loading. Increases in fertilizer use, animal wastes, and population growth in the Chesapeake Bay watershed since World War II have led to increases in nutrient loading and chl-a. We describe the development of numerical chl-a criteria based on long-term research and monitoring of the bay. Baseline chl-a concentrations were derived using statistical models for historical data from the 1960s and 1970s, including terms to account for the effects of climate variability. This approach produced numerical chl-a criteria presented as geometric means and 90th percentile thresholds to be used as goals and compliance limits, respectively. We present scientific bases for these criteria that consider specific ecosystem impairments linked to increased chl-a, including low dissolved oxygen (DO), reduced water clarity, and toxic algal blooms. These multiple lines of evidence support numerical chl-a criteria consisting of seasonal mean chl-a across salinity zones ranging from 1.4 to 15 mg m−3 as restoration goals and corresponding thresholds ranging from 4.3 to 45 mg m−3 as compliance limits. Attainment of these goals and limits for chl-a is a precondition for attaining desired levels of DO, water clarity, and toxic phytoplankton prior to rapid human expansion in the watershed and associated increases of nutrient loading.


Phytoplankton Chlorophyll Water quality criteria Estuaries Chesapeake Bay 



LWH was supported by the NSF Biological Oceanography Program and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Program Office. TRF was supported by the NASA Land-Use Land-Cover Change Program and the NSF Ecosystems Science Programs. MRM was supported by the NSF Ecological and Evolutionary Physiology Program and the Virginia Environmental Endowment. HWP was supported by the NSF Biological Oceanography Program and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, ModMon and FerryMon Projects.

Supplementary material

12237_2013_9656_MOESM1_ESM.doc (243 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 243 kb)
12237_2013_9656_Fig13_ESM.jpg (69 kb)
Fig. S1

af GMs and 90th percentile thresholds of surface chl-a under low-, mid-, and high-flow conditions for 1960s and 1970s historical reference periods by salinity zone. Asterisks over data bars identify GMs for the 1960s to highlight surface chl-a values that we are presenting as goals. (JPEG 68 kb)

12237_2013_9656_MOESM2_ESM.tif (2.6 mb)
High Resolution Image (TIFF 2702 kb)


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • L. W. HardingJr.
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • R. A. Batiuk
    • 3
  • T. R. Fisher
    • 1
  • C. L. Gallegos
    • 4
  • T. C. Malone
    • 1
  • W. D. Miller
    • 5
  • M. R. Mulholland
    • 6
  • H. W. Paerl
    • 7
  • E. S. Perry
    • 8
  • P. Tango
    • 9
  1. 1.Horn Point LaboratoryUniversity of Maryland Center for Environmental ScienceCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic SciencesUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.Chesapeake Bay Program OfficeU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyAnnapolisUSA
  4. 4.Smithsonian Environmental Research CenterEdgewaterUSA
  5. 5.U.S. Naval Research LaboratoryWashingtonUSA
  6. 6.Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric ScienceOld Dominion UniversityNorfolkUSA
  7. 7.Institute of Marine SciencesUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillMorehead CityUSA
  8. 8.HuntingtownUSA
  9. 9.Maryland Department of Natural ResourcesAnnapolisUSA

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