Estuarine primary production (PP) is a critical rate process for understanding ecosystem function and response to environmental change. PP is fundamentally linked to estuarine eutrophication, and as such should respond to ongoing efforts to reduce nutrient inputs to estuaries globally. However, concurrent changes including warming, altered hydrology, reduced input of sediments, and emergence of harmful algal blooms (HABs) could interact with nutrient management to produce unexpected changes in PP. Despite its fundamental importance, estuarine PP is rarely measured. We reconstructed PP in the York River Estuary with a novel mass balance model based on dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) for the period 1994–2018. Modeled PP compared well to previous estimates and demonstrated a long-term increase and down-estuary shift over the study period. This increase occurred despite reductions in discharge, flushing time, DIN loading, and DIN standing stock over the same period. Increased PP corresponded to increased water temperature, decreased turbidity and light attenuation, and increased photic depth and assimilation ratio, suggesting that phytoplankton in the York River Estuary have become more efficient at converting nutrients into biomass primarily due to a release from light limitation. The increase in PP also coincided with the increasing occurrence of late summer HABs in the lower York River Estuary, including the emergence of a second bloom-forming dinoflagellate in 2007. Results demonstrate how changes concurrent with nutrient management could alter expected system responses and illustrate the utility of the mass balance approach for estimating critical rate processes like PP in the absence of observations.
Kim, J., Brush, M.J., Song, B. and Anderson, I.C. (2021), Reconstructing primary production in a changing estuary: A mass balance modeling approach. Limnol Oceanogr, 66: 2535-2546. https://doi.org/10.1002/lno.11771
Limnology and Oceanography