Light dependence of Zostera marina annual growth dynamics in estuaries subject to different degrees of eutrophication Academic Article uri icon


  • In temperate, shallow systems with clear waters the temporal dynamic of eelgrass (Zostera marina) growth is closely associated with the seasonality of irradiance at the water's surface. It has been recently suggested that increasing eutrophication, via light attenuation by increased algal growth, may disrupt the close temporal association between eelgrass growth and surface irradiance often found in pristine sites. Here, we test this hypothesis by examining the coupling between eelgrass growth dynamics and surface irradiance over an annual cycle in four shallow estuaries of the Waquoit Bay system (Massachusetts, USA) that have similar physical characteristics, but are subject to different land-derived nitrogen loading rates and the intensity of eutrophication sustained. Contrary to our hypothesis, the results show that, in general, most measures of eelgrass demographics were positively correlated with surface irradiance in all four estuaries. Out of the 45 regression models adjusted between irradiance and demographic variables (density, plastochrone intervals, and above- or below-ground biomass, growth, and production, on both a per shoot and areal basis), only 9 of them were non-significant, and only 6 of those corresponded to the eutrophic estuaries. Most notably, we found a lack of correlation between shoot density and irradiance in the eutrophic estuaries, in contrast to the strong coupling exhibited in estuaries receiving the lowest nitrogen loads. Experimental evidence from previous work has demonstrated severe light limitation and other deleterious impacts imposed by macroalgal canopies on newly recruiting shoots in the eutrophic estuaries, likely contributing to the lack of correlation between shoot density and irradiance at the water's surface. Because the range in eutrophication encompassed by this comparison includes the range of conditions at which eelgrass can survive, the relatively consistent temporal coupling between surface irradiance and most eelgrass demographic variables found here may also be a feature of other shallow temperate systems undergoing increasing eutrophication, and indicates a measure of plant recruitment (density) to be one of the first parameters to become uncoupled from light reaching the water's surface.

publication date

  • January 2006