U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Science Advisory Board
Background Information

Document NameA strikingly rich zone—nutrient enrichment and secondary production in coastal marine ecosystems
Document AuthorNixon, S. W.
Buckley, B.A.
Short DescriptionEstuaries, 25, 782-796
CategorySubgroup 1: Characterization of the Cause(s) of Hypoxia
Publication Year2002

Abstract: Despite a recent review concluding that there is little or no reason to expect that the production of fish and other animals will increase with nutrient enrichment or eutrophication, there is a variety of evidence that anthropogenic nutrients can stimulate secondary production in marine ecosystems. Unique multiple-year fertilization experiments were carried out over fifty years ago in Scottish sea lochs that showed dramatic increases in the abundance of benthic infauna and greatly enhanced growth of fish as a result of inorganic nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) additions. These experiments appear to have provided a good qualitative model for the responses of the Baltic Sea to nutrient enrichment and resulting eutrophication. Historical comparisons by others have shown that the weight of benthic animals per unit area above the halocline in the Baltic is now up to 10 or 20 times greater than it was in the early 1920s and that the total fish biomass in the system may have increased 8 fold between the early part of the 1900s and the 1970s. While there are no similar data for the highly enriched central and southern North Sea, there is convincing evidence that the growth rates of plaice, sole, and other species have increased there since the 1960s or 1970s. Cross-system comparisons have also shown that there are strong correlations between primary production and the production and yield of fish and the standing crop and production of benthic macrofauna in phytoplankton-dominated marine ecosystems. Concerns over the growing nutrient (especially N) enrichment of coastal marine waters are clearly valid and deserve the attention of scientists and managers, but the recent demonizing of N ignores the fact that nutrients are a fundamental requirement for producing biomass. Decisions regarding the amount of N or P that will be allowed to enter marine ecosystems should be made with the full knowledge that there may be tradeoffs between increases in water clarity and dissolved oxygen and the abundance of oysters, clams, fish, and other animals we desire.