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

Document NameNitrogen in aquatic ecosystems.
Document AuthorRabalais, N.N.
Short DescriptionAmbio 31(2): 102-112.
CategorySubgroup 1: Characterization of the Cause(s) of Hypoxia
Publication Year2002

Abstract: Aquatic ecosystems respond variably to nutrient enrichment and altered nutrient ratios, along a continuum from fresh water through estuarine, coastal, and marine systems. Although phosphorus is considered the limiting nutrient for phytoplankton production in freshwater systems, the effects of atmospheric nitrogen and its contribution to acidification of fresh waters can be detrimental. Within the estuarine to coastal continuum, multiple nutrient limitations occur among nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon along the salinity gradient and by season, but nitrogen is generally considered the primary limiting nutrient for phytoplankton biomass accumulation. There are well-established, but nonlinear, positive relationships among nitrogen and phosphorus flux, phytoplankton primary production, and fisheries yield. There are thresholds, however, where the load of nutrients to estuarine, coastal and marine systems exceeds the capacity for assimilation of nutrient-enhanced production, and water-quality degradation occurs. Impacts can include noxious and toxic algal blooms, increased turbidity with a subsequent loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, oxygen deficiency, disruption of ecosystem functioning, loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity, shifts in food webs, and loss of harvestable fisheries.