Benthic Metabolism and Nutrient Cycling in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts Academic Article uri icon


  • To gain insight into the importance of the benthos in carbon and nutrient budgets of Boston Harbor and surrounding bays, we measured sediment-water exchanges of oxygen, total carbon dioxide (DIC), nitrogen (ammonium, nitrite + nitrite, urea, N2O), silicate, and phosphorus at several stations in different sedimentary environments just prior to and subsequent to cessation of sewage sludge disposal in the harbor. The ratio of the average annual DIC release to O-2 uptake at three primary stations ranged from 0.84 to 1.99. Annual average DIC:DIN flux ratios were consistently greater than predicted from the Redfield ratio, suggesting substantial losses of mineralized N. The pattern was less clear for P: some stations showed evidence that the sediments were a sink for P while others appeared to be a net source to the water column over the study period. In general, temporal and spatial patterns of respiration, nutrient fluxes, and flux ratios were not consistently related to measures of sediments oxidation-reduction status such as Eh or dissolved sulfide. Sediments from Boston Harbor metabolize a relatively high percentage (46%) of the organic matter inputs from phytoplankton production and allochthonous inputs when compared to most estuarine systems. Nutrient regeneration from the benthos is equivalent to 40% of the N, 29% of the P, and more than 60% of the Si demand of the phytoplankton. However, the role of the benthos in supporting primary production at the present time may be minor as nutrient inputs from sewage and other sources exceed benthic fluxes of N and P by 10-fold and Si by 4-fold. Our estimates of denitrification from DIC:DIN fluxes suggests that about 45% of the N mineralized in the sediments is denitrified, which accounts for about 17% of the N inputs from land.

publication date

  • June 1997