AME 37:219-235 (2004)  -  doi:10.3354/ame037219

Benthic nutrient fluxes in euphotic sediments along shallow sub-tropical estuaries, northern New South Wales, Australia

Angus J. P. Ferguson*, Bradley D. Eyre, Jennita M. Gay

Centre for Coastal Management, Southern Cross University, PO Box 157, East Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia

ABSTRACT: Diurnal benthic fluxes of dissolved inorganic and organic nitrogen (DIN and DON) and dinitrogen gas (N2) were measured in euphotic sediments of 3 shallow sub-tropical Australian estuaries during 4 seasons. The estuaries included 2 impacted by sewage effluent (Brunswick and Simpsons estuaries) and 1 relatively pristine system (Sandon estuary). Sediments acted predominantly as net sinks of DIN throughout the year, except in the nutrient-enriched upper reaches of the Brunswick estuary, where large effluxes of NH4+ occurred during the summer wet season. Distinct light/dark variations in NH4+ fluxes with reduced effluxes or reversal to uptakes occurred during the light in productive sediments. NO3- was predominantly taken up by sediments at rates proportional to ambient concentrations in the water column. DON commonly comprised a major fraction of fluxes and was controlled primarily by heterotrophic processes in the upper to middle estuaries and autotrophic processes in the lower estuaries. Large deficits in the amount of remineralised DIN (assuming the breakdown of ‘Redfield’ algae) indicated that a significant amount of nitrogen is either denitrified or immobilised in biomass in the sediments. Benthic fluxes of N2 suggest that denitrification accounts for a relatively small fraction of the missing nitrogen and immobilisation in biomass (and flow up the food chain) is a potentially major pathway of nitrogen removal in these estuaries. Significant rates of benthic productivity also stimulated secondary heterotrophic production, promoting competition for nutrient resources in the sediments. The highest rates of DIN uptake coincided with maximum metabolic rates in sediments where the diurnal p/r (gross productivity/respiration) was between 0.5 and 1, suggesting a peak in competition at this metabolic state. Denitrification rates were lowest at p/r 0.5 to 1 and strongly related to uptake of DIN from the water column, suggesting that competition may cause NO3- limitation in these euphotic sediments. Dissimilatory NO3- reduction to ammonium may become relatively more important as water column oxygen saturation drops below 40%, a condition that occurs regularly in the upper Brunswick estuary. NH4+ was only effluxed in net heterotrophic sediments (p/r < 1), while fluxes tended towards zero in net autotrophic sediments (p/r > 1). A conceptual model for benthic nutrient cycling in shallow sub-tropical estuaries is proposed whereby benthic productivity favours to the immobilisation of nitrogen in biomass at the expense of denitrification and recycling back to the water column.


KEY WORDS: Benthic nutrient fluxes · Sub-tropical estuaries · Gross productivity/respiration · p/r · Immobilisation · Benthic microalgae


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