Phosphorus Limits Phytoplankton Growth on the Louisiana Shelf During the Period of Hypoxia Formation

The Louisiana shelf is the largest zone of seasonally oxygen-depleted coastal bottom water in the U.S. This condition results from the high freshwater and nutrient input from the Mississippi River and the resulting high primary productivity in the river plume. The hypoxic zone has doubled in area since regular measurements began in 1985. Identification of the nutrient(s) limiting phytoplankton growth on the shelf and their sources is important for developing hypoxia-reduction strategies; nitrogen (N) has been considered the most important to date. In this study, we measured multiple parameters addressing nutrient limitation or stress (nutrient concentrations and ratios, alkaline phosphatase activity, phosphorus (P) turnover times, and changes in chlorophyll <i>a</i> concentrations in nutrient enrichment bioassays) in the Mississippi River plume in March, May, July, and September of 2001. All results indicate that phytoplankton growth on the Louisiana shelf was limited by P in May and July of 2001. P limitation was weakly evident in March, but N was limiting in September. The observed P limitation in spring and summer probably results from the historical increases in riverine N due to excessive N loading and has potential implications for developing hypoxia reduction strategies.