Effects of hypoxia and organic enrichment on the coastal marine environment

John S. GRAY, Shiu Sun Rudolf WU, Ying Ying OR

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Eutrophication is one of the most severe and widespread forms of disturbance affecting coastal marine systems. Whilst there are general models of effects on benthos, such as the Pearson-Rosenberg (P-R) model, the models are descriptive rather than predictive. Here we first review the process of increased organic matter production and the ensuing sedimentation to the seafloor. It is shown that there is no simple relationship between nutrient inputs and the vertical flux of particulate organic matter (POM). In particular, episodic hydrographic events are thought to be the key factor leading to high rates of sedimentation and accompanying hypoxia. We extend an earlier review of effects of hypoxia to include organisms living in the water column. In general, fishes are more sensitive to hypoxia than crustaceans and echinoderms, which in turn are more sensitive than annelids, whilst molluscs are the least sensitive. Growth is affected at oxygen concentrations between 6.0 and 4.5 mg O₂ l⁻¹, other aspects of metabolism are affected at between 4 and 2 mg O₂ l⁻¹ and mortality occurs where concentrations are below 2.0 to 0.5 mg O₂ l⁻¹. Field studies, however, show that complex behavioural changes also occur as hypoxia increases, and these are described herein. The areas where hypoxia occurs are frequently areas that are stagnant or with poor water exchange. Thus again, hydrographic factors are key processes determining whether or not hypoxia and eutrophication occur. Tolerance to ammonia and hydrogen sulphide is also reviewed, as these substances are found at near zero concentrations of oxygen and are highly toxic to most organisms. However, the effects of interactions between oxygen, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide only occur below oxygen concentrations of ca. 0.5 mg O₂ l⁻¹, since only below this concentration are hydrogen sulphide and oxygen released into the water. Models of eutrophication and the generation of hypoxia are discussed, and in particular the P-R model is analysed. Although agreement with the model is widely reported the actual predictions of the model have rarely been tested. Our review suggests that the major effects on benthic fauna result from hypoxia rather than organic enrichment per se and suggests that the P-R model is descriptive rather than predictive. Finally, a managerial tool is proposed, based on the stages of effects of hypoxia and organic enrichment suggested by the P-R model and on an earlier study. The proposed strategy involves rapid assessment tools and indicates where more detailed surveys are needed. Managers are advised that remedial action will not produce rapid results and that recovery from eutrophication will probably take decades. Thus it is essential to detect potential hypoxia and eutrophication effects at early stages of development. Copyright © 2002 Inter-Research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-279
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Publication statusPublished - 09 Aug 2002


Gray, J. S., Wu, R. S.-S., & Or, Y. Y. (2002). Effects of hypoxia and organic enrichment on the coastal marine environment. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 238, 249-279. doi: 10.3354/meps238249


  • Eutrophication
  • Hypoxia
  • Hydrogen sulphide
  • Ammonia
  • Effects on fauna


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