MEPS 295:91-103 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/meps295091

Organic carbon content of sediments as an indicator of stress in the marine benthos

J. Hyland1,*, L. Balthis1, I. Karakassis2, P. Magni3, A. Petrov4, J. Shine5, O. Vestergaard6, R. Warwick7

1National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, 219 Ft. Johnson Road, Charleston, South Carolina 29412, USA
2Marine Ecology Lab, Biology Department, University of Crete, Heraklion, 71409 Crete, Greece
3IMC International Marine Centre, Località Sa Mardini, 09072 Torregrande-Oristano, Italy
4National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas, 2 Nakhimov Ave., Sevastopol 99011, Ukraine
5Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University, 401 Park Drive, PO Box 1567, Boston, Massachusetts 02125, USA
6Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1 rue Miollis, 75732 Paris Cedex 15, France
7Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Prospect Place, West Hoe, Plymouth PL1 3DH, UK

ABSTRACT: While organic matter in sediments is an important source of food for benthic fauna, an overabundance can cause reductions in species richness, abundance, and biomass due to oxygen depletion and buildup of toxic by-products (ammonia and sulphide) associated with the breakdown of these materials. Moreover, increasing organic content of sediment is often accompanied by other chemical stressors co-varying with sediment particle size. In the present study, synoptic data on the structure of macroinfaunal communities and total organic carbon (TOC) content of sediment were obtained from 951 stations representing 7 coastal regions of the world: the northern Black Sea (Crimean and Caucasian coasts); eastern Mediterranean Sea (Greece); North Sea (Ekofisk oil field); Firth of Clyde and Liverpool Bay, UK; Seto Inland Sea, Japan; Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay, USA and estuaries of the southeastern USA. Macroinfaunal and TOC data were examined to look for patterns of association consistent with conceptual model predictions and to identify TOC critical points corresponding to major shifts in the benthic data. Species richness, Hurlbert’s E(Sn), was selected as the primary response parameter. Results suggested that risks of reduced species richness from organic loading and other associated stressors in sediments should be relatively low at TOC concentrations less than about 10 mg g–1, high at concentrations greater than about 35 mg g–1, and intermediate at concentrations in between. Predictive ability across these ranges was high based on results of re-sampling simulation. While not a measure of causality, it is anticipated that these TOC critical points may be used as a general screening-level indicator for evaluating the likelihood of reduced sediment quality and associated bioeffects over broad coastal areas receiving organic wastes and other pollutants from human activities.


KEY WORDS: Marine benthos · Total organic carbon · TOC · Benthic-TOC relationships · Ecological indicators · Pollution impacts · Benthic species richness


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