Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 126–139 | Cite as

Eutrophication of freshwater and coastal marine ecosystems a global problem

  • Val H Smith
Review Article


Goal, Scope and Background

Humans now strongly influence almost every major aquatic ecosystem, and their activities have dramatically altered the fluxes of growth-limiting nutrients from the landscape to receiving waters. Unfortunately, these nutrient inputs have had profound negative effects upon the quality of surface waters worldwide. This review examines how eutrophication influences the biomass and species composition of algae in both freshwater and costal marine systems.

Main Features

An overview of recent advances in algae-related eutrophication research is presented. In freshwater systems, a summary is presented for lakes and reservoirs; streams and rivers; and wetlands. A brief summary is also presented for estuarine and coastal marine ecosystems.


Eutrophication causes predictable increases in the biomass of algae in lakes and reservoirs; streams and rivers; wetlands; and coastal marine ecosystems. As in lakes, the response of suspended algae in large rivers to changes in nutrient loading may be hysteretic in some cases. The inhibitory effects of high concentrations of inorganic suspended solids on algal growth, which can be very evident in many reservoirs receiving high inputs of suspended soils, also potentially may occur in turbid rivers. Consistent and predictable eutrophication-caused increases in cyanobacterial dominance of phytoplankton have been reported worldwide for natural lakes, and similar trends are reported here both for phytoplankton in turbid reservoirs, and for suspended algae in a large river.


A remarkable unity is evident in the global response of algal biomass to nitrogen and phosphorus availability in lakes and reservoirs; wetlands; streams and rivers; and coastal marine waters. The species composition of algal communities inhabiting the water column appears to respond similarly to nutrient loading, whether in lakes, reservoirs, or rivers. As is true of freshwater ecosystems, the recent literature suggests that coastal marine ecosystems will respond positively to nutrient loading control efforts.

Recommendations and Outlook

Our understanding of freshwater eutrophication and its effects on algal-related water quality is strong and is advancing rapidly. However, our understanding of the effects of eutrophication on estuarine and coastal marine ecosystems is much more limited, and this gap represents an important future research need. Although coastal systems can be hydrologically complex, the biomass of marine phytoplankton nonetheless appears to respond sensitively and predictably to changes in the external supplies of nitrogen and phosphorus. These responses suggest that efforts to manage nutrient inputs to the seas will result in significant improvements in coastal zone water quality. Additional new efforts should be made to develop models that quantitatively link ecosystem-level responses to nutrient loading in both freshwater and marine systems.


Algae coastal marine ecosystems estuaries eutrophication harmful algal blooms nitrogen nutrients lakes reservoirs rivers phosphorus phytoplankton shallow lakes wetlands 


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© Ecomed Publishers 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Val H Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA

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