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Going West: Nutrient Limitation of Primary Production in the Northern Gulf of Mexico and the Importance of the Atchafalaya River

Abstract

To investigate controls on phytoplankton production along the Louisiana coastal shelf, we mapped salinity, nutrient concentrations (dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and phosphorus (Pi), silicate (Si)), nutrient ratios (DIN/Pi), alkaline phosphatase activity, chlorophyll and 14C primary productivity on fine spatial scales during cruises in March, May, and July 2004. Additionally, resource limitation assays were undertaken in a range of salinity and nutrient regimes reflecting gradients typical of this region. Of these, seven showed Pi limitation, five revealed nitrogen (N) limitation, three exhibited light (L) limitation, and one bioassay had no growth. We found the phytoplankton community to shift from being predominately N limited in the early spring (March) to P limited in late spring and summer (May and July). Light limitation of phytoplankton production was recorded in several bioassays in July in water samples collected after peak annual flows from both the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. We also found that organic phosphorus, as glucose-6-phosphate, alleviated P limitation while phosphono-acetic acid had no effect. Whereas DIN/Pi and DIN/Si ratios in the initial water samples were good predictors of the outcome of phytoplankton production in response to inorganic nutrients, alkaline phosphatase activity was the best predictor when examining organic forms of phosphorus. We measured the rates of integrated primary production (0.33–7.01 g C m−2 d−1), finding the highest rates within the Mississippi River delta and across Atchafalaya Bay at intermediate salinities. The lowest rates were measured along the outer shelf at the highest salinities and lowest nutrient concentrations (<0.1 μM DIN and Pi). The results of this study indicate that Pi limitation of phytoplankton delays the assimilation of riverine DIN in the summer as the plume spreads across the shelf, pushing primary production over a larger region. Findings from water samples, taken adjacent the Atchafalaya River discharge, highlighted the importance of this riverine system to the overall production along the Louisiana coast.

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Acknowledgments

We recognize the support of the captains and crew of the R/V Pelican and many students who participated in these cruises. Quay Dortch and other scientists at LUMCON for their generous support of laboratory equipment and space; Rodney Powell (LUMCON) and Tammi Richardson (University of South Carolina), in particular, are thanked for their assistance in making the isotope work feasible, Robin Brinkmeyer for saving the July cruise by packing sufficient filters for all on board and Sonja Dyhrman for ideas on the role of organic phosphorus during the July cruise. We thank Tyra Booe for running chlorophyll samples (Texas A&M University at Galveston), staff in John Morse’s laboratory for DIC analysis. Many discussions with Steven DiMarco, Gilbert Rowe, and Piers Chapman have stimulated the ideas presented. This work was supported by National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) CSCOR Grant number NA03NOS4780041 to JWA. This is contribution #144 of the NOAA NGOMEX research program. We thank Frank Millero for his encouragement and patience with this submission. Karen Kevekordes, three anonymous reviewers, and the guest Associate Editor, Dr. Alfonso Mucci, for critical comments that greatly enhanced the quality of the manuscript. A.Q remembers John Morse as an exceptional chemical oceanographer pushing boundaries to advance our understanding of aquatic biogeochemical processes. As a colleague, his gruff exterior hid a gentle heart, great wisdom, and a long history of mentoring junior faculty (Mackenzie et al. 2010).

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Correspondence to Antonietta Quigg.

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Supplemental Figure 1

Maps of (A) salinity, (B) DIN, (C) Pi, (D) DIN:Pi, (E) Chl a, and (F) APA from the May cruise. Salinity was measured on the practical salinity unit scale (no unit), nutrients were measured as μmol L−1, Chl a as mg m−3, and APA as nmol l−1 h−1 (EPS 69 kb)

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Quigg, A., Sylvan, J.B., Gustafson, A.B. et al. Going West: Nutrient Limitation of Primary Production in the Northern Gulf of Mexico and the Importance of the Atchafalaya River. Aquat Geochem 17, 519 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10498-011-9134-3

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Keywords

  • Primary production
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Mississippi River
  • Atchafalaya River