Nutrient and phytoplankton dynamics of the Hunter River estuary

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James Nicholas Hitchcock, Jordan Facey, Doug Westhopre, Simon Mitrovic


Observational studies and nutrient amendment experiments were conducted to better understand the nutrient and phytoplankton dynamics of the Hunter River estuary. Eutrophic conditions above ANZECC guidelines for estuaries dominate the Hunter River estuary. The upper Hunter estuary, upstream of its confluence with the Williams River, had the highest concentrations of nutrients and chlorophyll a. The major source of nutrients appears to be riverine discharge. Discharge from WWTP in the upper Hunter potentially contributes an important secondary source of phosphorus. Processes such as bank erosion and resuspension may also be important in explaining variation in nutrient concentrations. Light and turbidity were the main factors limiting phytoplankton growth in the upper estuary. The nutrient amendment experiments showed that when light limitation was alleviated, phytoplankton were either nitrogen limited or remained unlimited by nutrients (suggesting nutrients were in surplus for growth). The expression of nitrogen limitation is likely due to low N:P in the estuary. Organic nitrogen dominates the nitrogen pool within the Hunter estuary. The bioavailability of organic nitrogen in the estuary is unknown which may explain the lack of relationship between phytoplankton and nitrogen concentrations within the estuary. Diatoms and green algae dominated phytoplankton. There were occasions when toxic cyanobacteria was in high abundance in the upper estuary, however a longer data set of phytoplankton assemblage is needed to more adequately assess the risk of toxic cyanobacteria. Comparison of data from the monthly, twice-weekly, and hourly sampling intervals demonstrated the five-year monthly sampling data appeared to mostly capture the variability of nutrient and chlorophyll a concentrations in relation to their main explanatory factors (discharge and light). There were some examples of chlorophyll a and nitrogen concentrations that fell outside of predicted ranges. Overall the results suggest any increase in nitrogen loads to the estuary may lead to increased phytoplankton growth. Improved light climate may also lead to increased phytoplankton growth. Reducing inputs of both nitrogen and phosphorus to the upper Hunter estuary should be a priority action to increase ecosystem health.



Environmental Monitoring, Environmental Sciences, Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Estuary, nitrogen, nutrient limitation, nutrients, phosphorus, phytoplankton, water quality, Zooplankton


Published: 2021-12-28 00:53


CC-By Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International