Effects of nutrient enrichment and small predator density on seagrass ecosystems: An experimental assessment

Heck, K. L., J. R. Pennock, J. F. Valentine, L. D. Coen, S. A. Sklenar

Limnol. Oceanogr., 45(5), 2000, 1041-1057 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2000.45.5.1041

ABSTRACT: We used a field experiment to assess the individual and combined effects of removing top predators and enriching water column nutrients (nitrogen-N and phosphorus-P) on seagrass ecosystem structure and function. Experiments were conducted in turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum) habitats in St. Joseph Bay, FL, an aquatic preserve in the northern Gulf of Mexico that exhibits low ambient nutrient concentrations and contains abundant populations of small crustacean and gastropod mesograzers. We stocked 7.0 m 2 enclosures with elevated (~4-8x ambient) densities of juvenile pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides), the dominant fish species in local seagrass habitats, to simulate the first-order effects of large predator reductions, and we used an in situ delivery system to supplement N and P to ~3x ambient levels in nutrient addition treatments. Monthly determinations of water column nutrients and Chl a, along with measurements of the biomass and abundance of leaf epiphytes and seagrass production, biomass, and shoot and leaf densities were used to evaluate the relative effects of manipulating nutrient supply and altering food web structure. In contrast to our expectations, results showed few significant nutrient effects, or fish 3 nutrient enrichment effects on any of the parameters measured. However, there were many significant fish effects, most of which were unexpected. As predicted, increased pinfish density reduced mesograzer numbers significantly. Not anticipated, however, was the reduced epiphyte biomass in fish enclosure treatments, apparently brought about by the pinfish consuming significant amounts of epiphytes as well as mesograzers. This reduction in epiphyte biomass produced positive indirect effects on seagrass biomass, shoot number, and rates of primary productivity in pinfish enclosure treatments. Our results also showed important top-down effects in determining the composition and abundance of seagrass-associated plants and animals in this pristine environment. Although we did not observe simple trophic cascades, most likely because pinfish fed at more than one trophic level, and because the dense seagrass prevented small grazers from being reduced to low numbers, pinfish produced important changes in the epibiota as well as the seagrasses themselves. These data, while contrasting with studies reporting significant negative nutrient enrichment effects on seagrasses, support the results of recent experimental studies in showing that: (1) small grazers can often control the abundance of epiphytes; and (2) it is unlikely that a full understanding of the consequences of nutrient enrichment for seagrass ecosystems can be gained without knowing how grazer population are regulated.

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