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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 210:223-253 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/meps210223

Our evolving conceptual model of the coastal eutrophication problem

James E. Cloern*

US Geological Survey, MS496, 345 Middlefield Rd., Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

ABSTRACT: A primary focus of coastal science during the past 3 decades has been the question: How does anthropogenic nutrient enrichment cause change in the structure or function of nearshore coastal ecosystems? This theme of environmental science is recent, so our conceptual model of the coastal eutrophication problem continues to change rapidly. In this review, I suggest that the early (Phase I) conceptual model was strongly influenced by limnologists, who began intense study of lake eutrophication by the 1960s. The Phase I model emphasized changing nutrient input as a signal, and responses to that signal as increased phytoplankton biomass and primary production, decomposition of phytoplankton-derived organic matter, and enhanced depletion of oxygen from bottom waters. Coastal research in recent decades has identified key differences in the responses of lakes and coastal-estuarine ecosystems to nutrient enrichment. The contemporary (Phase II) conceptual model reflects those differences and includes explicit recognition of (1) system-specific attributes that act as a filter to modulate the responses to enrichment (leading to large differences among estuarine-coastal systems in their sensitivity to nutrient enrichment); and (2) a complex suite of direct and indirect responses including linked changes in: water transparency, distribution of vascular plants and biomass of macroalgae, sediment biogeochemistry and nutrient cycling, nutrient ratios and their regulation of phytoplankton community composition, frequency of toxic/harmful algal blooms, habitat quality for metazoans, reproduction/growth/survival of pelagic and benthic invertebrates, and subtle changes such as shifts in the seasonality of ecosystem functions. Each aspect of the Phase II model is illustrated here with examples from coastal ecosystems around the world. In the last section of this review I present one vision of the next (Phase III) stage in the evolution of our conceptual model, organized around 5 questions that will guide coastal science in the early 21st century: (1) How do system-specific attributes constrain or amplify the responses of coastal ecosystems to nutrient enrichment? (2) How does nutrient enrichment interact with other stressors (toxic contaminants, fishing harvest, aquaculture, nonindigenous species, habitat loss, climate change, hydrologic manipulations) to change coastal ecosystems? (3) How are responses to multiple stressors linked? (4) How does human-induced change in the coastal zone impact the Earth system as habitat for humanity and other species? (5) How can a deeper scientific understanding of the coastal eutrophication problem be applied to develop tools for building strategies at ecosystem restoration or rehabilitation?

KEY WORDS: Coastal eutrophication · Nutrient enrichment · Estuaries · Nitrogen · Phosphorus · Coastal ecosystems

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