Spatial variability of phytoplankton in a shallow tidal freshwater system reveals complex controls on abundance and community structure

Science of the Total Environment
By: , and 



Estuaries worldwide are undergoing changes to patterns of aquatic productivity because of human activities that alter flow, impact sediment delivery and thus the light field, and contribute nutrients and contaminants like pesticides and metals. These changes can influence phytoplankton communities, which in turn can alter estuarine food webs. We used multiple approaches-including high-resolution water quality mapping, synoptic sampling, productivity and nitrogen uptake rates, Lagrangian parcel tracking, enclosure experiments and bottle incubations-over a short time period to take a “spatial snapshot” of conditions in the northern region of the San Francisco Estuary (California, USA) to examine how environmental drivers like light availability, nutrients, water residence time, and contaminants affect phytoplankton abundance and community attributes like size distribution, taxonomic structure, and nutrient uptake rates. Zones characterized by longer residence time (15–60 days) had higher chlorophyll-a concentrations (9 ± 4 µg L−1) and were comprised primarily of small phytoplankton cells (<5 µm, 74 ± 8%), lower ammonium concentrations (1 ± 0.8 µM), higher nitrate uptake rates, and higher rates of potential carbon productivity. Conversely, zones characterized by shorter residence time (1–14 days) had higher ammonium concentration (13 ± 5 µM) and lower chlorophyll-a concentration (5 ± 1 µg L−1) with diatoms making up a larger percent contribution. Longer residence time, however, did not result in the accumulation of large (>5 µm) cells considered important to pelagic food webs. Rather, longer residence time zones had a phytoplankton community comprised primarily of small cells, particularly picocyanobacteria that made up 38 ± 17% of the chlorophyll-a – nearly double the concentration seen in shorter residence time zones (22 ± 7% picocyanobacterial of chlorophyll-a). Our results suggest that water residence time in estuaries may have an effect as large or larger than that experimentally demonstrated for light, contaminants, or nutrients.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Spatial variability of phytoplankton in a shallow tidal freshwater system reveals complex controls on abundance and community structure
Series title Science of the Total Environment
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134392
Volume 700
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center, Oregon Water Science Center
Description 134392, 17 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial San Francisco Bay
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