Nutrient cycling in the sub-tropical Brunswick estuary, northern NSW, Australia

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Ferguson, AJP, Eyre, BD & Gay, JM 2004, 'Nutrient cycling in the sub-tropical Brunswick estuary, northern NSW, Australia', Estuaries, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 1-18.


A combination of mixing plots, one-dimensional salt balance modelling, nutrient loading budgets, and benthic flux measurements were used to assess nutrient cycling pathways in the enriched sub-tropical Brunswick estuary during different freshwater flows. A simple model accounting for freshwater residence times and nutrient availability was found to be a good predictor of phytoplankton biomass along the estuary, and suggested that biomass accumulation may become nutrient-limited during low flows and that recycling within the water column is important during blooms. Dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) cycling budgets were constructed for the estuary during different freshwater flows accounting for all major inputs (catchment, sewage, and urban) to the estuary. Internal cycling due to phytoplankton uptake (based on measured biomass) and sediment-water fluxes (based on measured rates in each estuarine reach) was considered. Four different nutrient cycling states were identified during the study. In high flow, freshwater residence times are less than 1 d, internal cycling processes are bypassed and virtually all dissolved, and most particulate, nutrients are delivered to the continental shelf. During the growth phase of a phytoplankton bloom enhanced recycling occurs as residence times increase sufficiently to allow biomass accumulation. Remineralization of phytoplankton detritus during this phase can supply up to 50% of phytoplankton DIN demands. In post-bloom conditions, DIN uptake by phytoplankton decreases in the autumn wet season when biomass doubling times begin to exceed residence times. OM supply to the sediments diminishes and the benthos becomes nutrient-limited, resulting in DIN uptake by the sediments. As flows decrease further in the dry season, there is tight recycling and phytoplankton blooms, and uptake by the sediments can account for the entire DIN loading to the estuary resulting in complete removal of DIN from the water column. The ocean is a potentially important source of DIN to the estuary at this time. The results of the DIN cycling budgets compared favorably with mixing plots of DIN at each time. The results suggest that a combination of different approaches may be useful in developing a more comprehensive understanding of nutrient cycling behavior and the effects of nutrient enrichment in estuaries.

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