Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 41, Issue 7, pp 1994–2008 | Cite as

Sedimentary Environment Influences Ecosystem Response to Nutrient Enrichment

  • Emily J. DouglasEmail author
  • Conrad A. Pilditch
  • Andrew M. Lohrer
  • Candida Savage
  • Louis A. Schipper
  • Simon F. Thrush


As coastal catchment land use intensifies, estuaries receive increased nutrient and sediment loads, resulting in habitats that are dominated by muddy organic-rich sediments. Increased mud (i.e. silt-clay (particles < 63 μm)) content has been associated with negative effects on soft sediment biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, but the simultaneous impact of nutrient enrichment on ecosystem response is unclear. Nutrient recycling and denitrification in estuarine soft sediments represent important ecosystem functions regenerating nutrients for primary producers and regulating the ability to remove excess terrestrially derived nitrogen. To test the effect of sedimentary environment on ecosystem resilience to nutrient perturbation, we experimentally enriched sediments with slow release fertiliser across an intertidal sedimentary gradient (0–24% mud content). The enrichment successfully elevated pore water ammonium concentrations (median 36 × control) to levels representative of enriched estuaries. Findings show that the sedimentary environment can influence ecosystem function response to nutrient stress. In particular, denitrification enzyme activity was suppressed by nutrient enrichment, but the effect was greater as sediment mud content increased. Furthermore, compared with sandy sediments, sediments with high mud content may restrict nutrient processing (release, uptake or transformation of organic nutrients by the benthos) facilitating ecosystem shifts toward eutrophication. These results show the value of investigating the impacts of stressors in different environmental settings and demonstrate that land use practices that increase the proportion of muddy habitats in estuaries may reduce denitrification which in turn may reduce ecosystem resilience to eutrophication.


Estuary Denitrification enzyme activity Benthic fluxes Eutrophication Sedimentation Nitrogen 



We thank Dudley Bell, Rebecca Gladstone-Gallagher, Bradley Monahan, Ryan Hughes, Teri O’Meara, Catherine Kelly, Simon Jopling and Jane Cope for their help with field work. Thanks to Janine Ryburn, Sarah Hailes, Lisa McCartain and Ronald Ram for assistance with laboratory analyses. We also appreciate the constructive comments of four anonymous reviewers that improved the manuscript. This project was supported by CO1x1515 4.2.1 to SFT and CAP, and a University of Waikato Doctoral Scholarship to EJD.

Author’s Contributions

EJD and CAP designed the study with input from SFT, AML and CS. EJD and CAP performed field research. EJD performed laboratory analyses with input from LAS. EJD and CAP analysed data, EJD wrote the manuscript with assistance from CAP and input from AML, CS, LAS and SFT.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Emily J. Douglas
    • 1
    Email author
  • Conrad A. Pilditch
    • 1
  • Andrew M. Lohrer
    • 2
  • Candida Savage
    • 3
    • 4
  • Louis A. Schipper
    • 1
  • Simon F. Thrush
    • 5
  1. 1.School of ScienceUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  2. 2.National Institute of Water and Atmospheric ResearchHamiltonNew Zealand
  3. 3.Department of Marine ScienceUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  4. 4.Marine Research Institute and Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa
  5. 5.Institute of Marine ScienceUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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