Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 42, Issue 2, pp 504–512 | Cite as

Nutrient Loading Impacts on Estuarine Phytoplankton Size and Community Composition: Community-Based Indicators of Eutrophication

  • Elise Van MeersscheEmail author
  • James L. Pinckney


Water quality management strategies focus primarily on reducing nutrient loading in estuaries to limit total chlorophyll a (chl a) to less than 40 μg l−1. However, potential alterations in phytoplankton community composition and subsequent ecological implications below this limit are not generally considered. The effect of moderate loadings of nitrate (N) and phosphate (P) on nutrient-limited phytoplankton composition and cell size was investigated using multiple bioassays from 2014 to 2016 to evaluate phytoplankton community shifts below the 40 μg l−1 threshold. Water collected from North Inlet Estuary, SC, was spiked with 20 μmol l−1 N and of 10 μmol l−1 P and incubated for 2 days. The proportion of diatoms, cryptophytes, cyanobacteria, prasinophytes, and chlorophytes was calculated for each treatment (i.e., control and NP addition) and for two size fractions (i.e., < 20 μm and whole water). Phytoplankton biomass increases were below the 40 μg chl a l−1 threshold and resulted in a variable shift in phytoplankton group abundances, likely due to the initial community composition. Nutrient additions enhanced the biomass of the fraction smaller than 20 μm and the proportion of diatoms at the expense of cyanobacteria and cryptophytes. Shifts in community composition could have potential cascading impacts on higher trophic levels in the estuary. These results highlight the importance of characterizing and monitoring eutrophication using abundances of algal groups in addition to total biomass as ecologically relevant alterations may occur at low levels of eutrophication.


Chlorophyll a Estuary Eutrophication Nutrients Photopigments 



We thank C. Doll and J.P. Everhart for their assistance with photopigment and nutrient analyses. We also thank Dr. Dianne Greenfield and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. This is publication 1867 from the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Funding Information

This work was supported by the F. John Vernberg Fellowship, the Slocum-Lunz Foundation, and the SPARC fellowship received from the University of South Carolina and from the Baruch Institute.

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

  1. 1.Department of Biological Sciences and the Belle W. Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal SciencesUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Facultad de Ciencias BiologicasPontificia Universidad Católica de ChileSantiagoChile

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