MEPS 342:91-103 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps342091

Evidence for phytoplankton iron limitation in the southern California Current System

Andrew L. King*, Katherine Barbeau

Geosciences Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mail Code 0218, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0218, USA

ABSTRACT: Observations of phytoplankton iron limitation in the world’s oceans have primarily been confined to high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll (HNLC) regimes, found in the western equatorial and subarctic Pacific, Southern Ocean, and coastal upwelling zones off California and Peru. We investigated the potential for phytoplankton iron limitation in coastal transition zones (50 to 200 km offshore) of the southern California Current System, a weak upwelling regime that is relatively low in nutrients (<4 µmol nitrate l–1) and low in chlorophyll (<1 µg chl a l–1). In grow-out incubation experiments conducted during summer, July 2003 and 2004, phytoplankton responded to nanomolar iron additions, despite the non-HNLC initial conditions. Observed changes in phytoplankton and nutrient parameters upon iron addition were significant, although markedly lower in amplitude relative to typical grow-out experiments in HNLC regimes. While we cannot disprove alternate explanations for the observed limitation of phytoplankton growth, such as a proximate grazing control, our results indicate that phytoplankton growth in the southern California Current System is, at times, limited by the supply of iron. Based on our findings and the results of previous studies in this region, we suggest that phytoplankton biomass is generally limited by the supply of nitrate, while iron, directly or indirectly, influences macronutrient utilization, community species composition, and phytoplankton spatial and temporal distribution.

KEY WORDS: Phytoplankton · Limitation · Iron · Trace metals · California Current

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