Nutrient pollution of coastal rivers, bays, and seas

Issues in Ecology
By: , and 



Over the past 40 years, antipollution laws have greatly reduced discharges of toxic substances into our coastal waters. This effort, however, has focused largely on point-source pollution of industrial and municipal effluent. No comparable effort has been made to restrict the input of nitrogen (N) from municipal effluent, nor to control the flows of N and phosphorus (P) that enter waterways from dispersed or nonpoint sources such as agricultural and urban runoff or as airborne pollutants. As a result, inputs of nonpoint pollutants, particularly N, have increased dramatically. Nonpoint pollution from N and P now represents the largest pollution problem facing the vital coastal waters of the United States.

Nutrient pollution is the common thread that links an array of problems along the nation’s coastline, including eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, ”dead zones,” fish kills, some shellfish poisonings, loss of seagrass and kelp beds, some coral reef destruction, and even some marine mammal and seabird deaths. More than 60 percent of our coastal rivers and bays in every coastal state of the continental United States are moderately to severely degraded by nutrient pollution. This degradation is particularly severe in the mid Atlantic states, in the southeast, and in the Gulf of Mexico.

A recent report from the National Research Council entitled “Clean Coastal Waters: Understanding and Reduc- ing the Effects of Nutrient Pollution” concludes that:

Nutrient over-enrichment of coastal ecosystems generally triggers ecological changes that decrease the biologi- cal diversity of bays and estuaries.

While moderate N enrichment of some coastal waters may increase fish production, over-enrichment generally degrades the marine food web that supports commercially valuable fish.

The marked increase in nutrient pollution of coastal waters has been accompanied by an increase in harmful algal blooms, and in at least some cases, pollution has triggered these blooms.

High nutrient levels and the changes they cause in water quality and the makeup of the algal community are detrimental to the health of coral reefs and the diversity of animal life supported by seagrass and kelp communi- ties.

Research during the past decade confirms that N is the chief culprit in eutrophication and other impacts of nutrient over-enrichment in temperate coastal waters, while P is most problematic in eutrophication of freshwa- ter lakes.

Human conversion of atmospheric N into biologically useable forms, principally synthetic inorganic fertilizers, now matches the natural rate of biological N fixation from all the land surfaces of the earth.

Both agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels contribute significantly to nonpoint flows of N to coastal waters, either as direct runoff or airborne pollutants.

N from animal wastes that leaks directly to surface waters or is volatilized to the atmosphere as ammonia may be the largest single source of N that moves from agricultural operations into coastal waters.

The National Research Council report recommended that, as a minimum goal, the nation should work to reverse nutrient should be taken to assure that the 40 percent of coastal areas now ranked as healthy do not develop symptoms of nutrient pollution in 10 percent of its degraded coastal systems by 2010 and 25 percent of them by 2020. Also, action should be taken to assure that the 40 percent of coastal areas now ranked as healthy do not develop symptoms of nutrient pollution. 

Meeting these goals will require an array of strategies and approaches tailored to specific regions and coastal ecosystems. There is an urgent need for development and testing of techniques that can reliably pinpoint the sources of N pollutants to an estuary. For some coastal systems, N removal during treatment of human sewage may be sufficient to reverse nutrient pollution. For most coastal systems, however, the solutions will be more complex and may involve controls on N compounds emitted during fossil fuel combustion as well as incentives to reduce over-fertilization of agricul- tural fields and nutrient pollution from animal wastes in livestock feedlot operations. 

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Nutrient pollution of coastal rivers, bays, and seas
Series title Issues in Ecology
Issue 7
Year Published 2000
Language English
Publisher Ecology Society of America
Publisher location Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s) National Research Program - Western Branch
Description 15 p.
First page 1
Last page 16
Country United States
State Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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