Anthropogenic nutrient enrichment of the coastal zone is now a well-established fact. However, there is still uncertainty about the mechanisms through which nutrient enrichment can disrupt biological communities and ecosystem processes in the coastal zone. For example, while some estuaries exhibit classic symptoms of acute eutrophication, including enhanced production of algal biomass, other nutrient-rich estuaries maintain low algal biomass and primary production. This implies that large differences exist among coastal ecosystems in the rates and patterns of nutrient assimilation and cycling. Part of this variability comes from differences among ecosystems in the other resource that can limit algal growth and production - the light energy required for photosynthesis. Complete understanding of the eutrophication process requires consideration of the interacting effects of light and nutrients, including the role of light availability as a regulator of the expression of eutrophication. A simple index of the relative strength of light and nutrient limitation of algal growth can be derived from models that describe growth rate as a function of these resources. This index can then be used as one diagnostic to classify the sensitivity of coastal ecosystems to the harmful effects of eutrophication. Here I illustrate the application of this diagnostic with light and nutrient measurements made in three California estuaries and two Dutch estuaries.
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The relative importance of light and nutrient limitation of phytoplankton growth: A simple index of coastal ecosystem sensitivity to nutrient enrichment