Denitrification efficiency for defining critical loads of carbon in shallow coastal ecosystems

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Eyre, BD & Ferguson, AJP 2009, 'Denitrification efficiency for defining critical loads of carbon in shallow coastal ecosystems', Hydrobiologia, vol. 629, no. 1, pp. 137-146.

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Denitrification efficiency [DE; (N2 − N/(DIN + N2 − N) × 100%)] as an indicator of change associated with nutrient over-enrichment was evaluated for 22 shallow coastal ecosystems in Australia. The rate of carbon decomposition (which can be considered a proxy for carbon loading) is an important control on the efficiency with which coastal sediments in depositional mud basins with low water column nitrate concentrations recycle nitrogen as N2. The relationship between DE and carbon loading is due to changes in carbon and nitrate (NO3) supply associated with sediment biocomplexity. At the DE optimum (500–1,000 μmol m−2 h−1), there is an overlap of aerobic and anaerobic respiration zones (caused primarily by the existence of anaerobic micro-niches within the oxic zone, and oxidized burrow structures penetrating into the anaerobic zone), which enhances denitrification by improving both the organic carbon and nitrate supply to denitrifiers. On either side of the DE optimum zone, there is a reduction in denitrification sites as the sediment loses its three-dimensional complexity. At low organic carbon loadings, a thick oxic zone with low macrofauna biomass exists, resulting in limited anoxic sites for denitrification, and at high carbon loadings, there is a thick anoxic zone and a resultant lack of oxygen for nitrification and associated NO3 production. We propose a trophic scheme for defining critical (sustainable) carbon loading rates and possible thresholds for shallow coastal ecosystems based on the relationship between denitrification efficiency and carbon loading for 17 of the 22 Australian coastal ecosystems. The denitrification efficiency “optimum” occurs between carbon loadings of about 50 and 100 g C m−2 year−1. Coastal managers can use this simple trophic scheme to classify the current state of their shallow coastal ecosystems and for determining what carbon loading rate is necessary to achieve any future state.