Evolving Paradigms and Challenges in Estuarine and Coastal Eutrophication Dynamics in a Culturally and Climatically Stressed World

Abstract

Coastal watersheds support more than one half of the world’s human population and are experiencing unprecedented urban, agricultural, and industrial expansion. The freshwater–marine continua draining these watersheds are impacted increasingly by nutrient inputs and resultant eutrophication, including symptomatic harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, finfish and shellfish kills, and loss of higher plant and animal habitat. In addressing nutrient input reductions to stem and reverse eutrophication, phosphorus (P) has received priority traditionally in upstream freshwater regions, while controlling nitrogen (N) inputs has been the focus of management strategies in estuarine and coastal waters. However, freshwater, brackish, and full-salinity components of this continuum are connected structurally and functionally. Intensification of human activities has caused imbalances in N and P loading, altering nutrient limitation characteristics and complicating successful eutrophication control along the continuum. Several recent examples indicate the need for dual N and P input constraints as the only nutrient management option effective for long-term eutrophication control. Climatic changes increase variability in freshwater discharge with more severe storms and intense droughts and interact closely with nutrient inputs to modulate the magnitude and relative proportions of N and P loading. The effects of these interactions on phytoplankton production and composition were examined in two neighboring North Carolina lagoonal estuaries, the New River and Neuse River Estuaries, which are experiencing concurrent eutrophication and climatically driven hydrologic variability. Efforts aimed at stemming estuarine and coastal eutrophication in these and other similarly impacted estuarine systems should focus on establishing N and P input thresholds that take into account effects of hydrologic variability, so that eutrophication and harmful algal blooms can be controlled over a range of current and predicted climate change scenarios.

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Acknowledgments

We thank co-workers who assisted with field and laboratory work and manuscript preparation, including B. Abare, J, Braddy, A. Joyner, L. Kelly, and R. Sloup. The editorial input from I. Anderson and W. Gardner and review provided by K. McGlathery are appreciated. This research was funded by the Strategic Environmental Research and Developmental Program (SERDP)–Defense Coastal/Estuarine Research Program, Project SI-1413, The Lower Neuse Basin Association/Neuse River Compliance Association, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ModMon Program), and National Science Foundation Projects OCE 0825466, OCE 0812913, ENG/CBET0826819 and 1230543, and DEB 1119704 and 1240851.

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Correspondence to Hans W. Paerl.

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Communicated by Iris C. Anderson

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Paerl, H.W., Hall, N.S., Peierls, B.L. et al. Evolving Paradigms and Challenges in Estuarine and Coastal Eutrophication Dynamics in a Culturally and Climatically Stressed World. Estuaries and Coasts 37, 243–258 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-014-9773-x

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Keywords

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Phytoplankton
  • Coastal eutrophication
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Climate change