Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 35, Issue 6, pp 1453–1467 | Cite as

Using δ15N in Fish Larvae as an Indicator of Watershed Sources of Anthropogenic Nitrogen: Response at Multiple Spatial Scales

  • Joel C. HoffmanEmail author
  • John R. Kelly
  • Greg S. Peterson
  • Anne M. Cotter
  • Matthew A. Starry
  • Michael E. Sierszen


There is growing interest in applying δ15N in biota as an indicator of anthropogenic nutrient inputs to coastal environments because changes in δ15N correlate to inputs of land-based nutrients. In complex coastal receiving waters, however, land-use effects on biota δ15N may be masked by local hydrologic processes, especially exchange with coastal waters of different geochemical character. We examined δ15N differences among larval fish, a novel biotic indicator, in coastal receiving waters at both among and within watershed scales. Our goal was to characterize how hydrologic processes within coastal river mouths and embayments mediate the effect of land-based N sources on larval fish δ15N. We sampled three Lake Superior river-embayment systems from watersheds that span a large population density gradient. Over all stations, mean fish δ15N ranged from 2.7 ‰ to 10.8 ‰. Within each system, we found a different pattern in δ15N across the river–lake transition zone. Correlations between fish δ15N and water quality, particularly NH 4 + and total nitrogen, were highly significant and corresponded to known differences in sewage waste water inputs. A multivariate model that included both watershed-based population density and NH 4 + was found to provide the best fit to the δ15N data among a series of multi- and univariate candidate models. These results demonstrate that: (1) fish larvae δ15N responded at within watershed scales, and (2) within coastal receiving waters, fish larvae δ15N was related to waste water inputs at the watershed scale; however, expression at specific locations within a coastal system was strongly influenced by local hydrologic processes.


Nitrogen stable isotopes Eutrophication Monitoring Sewage waste water Great Lakes 



We thank T. Corry, J. Van Alstine, M. Pearson, A. Trebitz, and C. Butterworth for field assistance; A. Just, L. Seifert, and M. Knuth for laboratory assistance; and A. Oczkowski and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the US EPA.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (outside the USA) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joel C. Hoffman
    • 1
    Email author
  • John R. Kelly
    • 1
  • Greg S. Peterson
    • 1
  • Anne M. Cotter
    • 1
  • Matthew A. Starry
    • 2
  • Michael E. Sierszen
    • 1
  1. 1.Mid-Continent Ecology Division, National Health and Environmental Effects Research LabUS EPA Office of Research and DevelopmentDuluthUSA
  2. 2.SRA International, IncDuluthUSA

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