Nutrient Effects on Algal Biomass and Biological Communities

Excessive nutrients can be detrimental to aquatic life

Aquatic biota—algae, invertebrates, and fish— require nutrients to sustain healthy populations in streams. Aquatic life in natural streams consists of a diverse array of microbes, fungi, aquatic vegetation, invertebrates and fish. With the exception of direct spills of ammonia into streams, nutrients are not typically toxic to aquatic life. However, increased nutrient enrichment can result in detrimental ecological effects, including increased aquatic vegetation which can lead to reduced dissolved oxygen.

Some aquatic species provide important information on nutrient conditions

Increased growth of aquatic vegetation (algae and plants) leads to increases in the types of fish and invertebrate species that can better tolerate nutrient pollution — those that eat algae or thrive in streams that have wide daily changes in dissolved oxygen associated with algal growth. Streams dominated by species able to live in low dissolved oxygen — common carp, green sunfish, and white suckers or algivores — indicate nutrient enrichment in the stream. However, it is often the in-stream habitat that determines community composition more than nutrient concentrations. Given the complex nature of nutrient impacts on algal biomass and biological communities, the use of multiple lines of evidence — chemistry, algal biomass, and biological community data — is necessary to determine the true nutrient condition within the stream.

Other nutrient related information (click on link and it would go to the next page): Measuring  water quality using biological communities –> Do you have content for this yet? If so, send it my way and I’ll work it in.

Additional Resources

Miltner, R,J., and Rankin, E.T., 1998. Primary nutrients and the biotic integrity of rivers and streams. Freshwater Biology, v. 40, p. 145-158.

Notes: This research found that the relations between nutrients, algal biomass and biological communities are confounded in lotic ecosystems because of varing degrees of nutrient limitation and physical factors. There was a significant negative relation in fish communities for dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus at concentrations of 0.61 and 0.06 milligrams per liter, respectively. Results suggest that the control of toxins and oxygen demanding wastes to rivers is insufficient to protect aquatic life, and confirms the importance of non-point sources of pollution when environmental managers address the issue.

Morgan, A.M., Royer, T.V., David, M.B., and Gentry, L.E., 2006. Transport and fate of nitrate in headwater agricultural streams in Illinois. Journal of Environmental Quality, 33, p. 1296-1304

Notes: In this study, mean nitrate concentrations in five wadable agricultural streams ranged from 5.5-8.8 milligrams per liter as nitrogen and did not significantly relate to periphytic or sestonic Chlorophyll a (CHLa). The greatest periphytic CHLa concentrations occurred from August through October. The abundance of filamentous algae explained 64 percent of the variation in diel oxygen saturation, but was not related to nutrients. Results suggest that hydrology and light control algal abundance in streams.

Frey, J.W. and Caskey, B.J., 2007. Nutrient, habitat, and basin-characteristics data and relations with fish- and invertebrate communities in Indiana streams, 1998-2000. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5076, 40 p.

Notes: In this study, several significant but weak relations were found between nutrients and fish and invertebrate attributes and metrics. The strength of the relations increased in the fish data when the data was analyzed by basin size.

Frey, J.W., Caskey, B.J., and Lowe, B.S., 2007. Relations of principal components analysis site scores to algal-biomass, habitat, basin-characteristics, nutrients, and biological-community data in the West Fork White River Basin, Indiana, 2001. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007–5222, 26 p.

Notes: This study found that there were no significant relations between the periphyton principal component sites scores with nutrients. But, there were significant relations with fish and invertebrate attributes and metrics. Seston principal component sites scores were significantly related to nutrients and fish and invertebrate attributes.

Caskey, B.J., Frey, J.W., and Lowe, B.J., 2007. Relations of principal components analysis site scores to algal-biomass, habitat, basin-characteristics, nutrient, and biological-community data in the Whitewater River and East Fork White River Basins, Indiana, 2002. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5229, 31 p.

Notes: Similar to the 2001 study in the White River Basin, this study found no significant relations between the periphyton principal component sites scores with nutrients but significant relations with fish attributes and metrics. Seston principal component sites scores were significantly related to nutrients and fish and invertebrate attributes.

Leer, D.R., Caskey, B.J., Frey, J.W., and Lowe, B.J., 2007. Relations of principal components analysis site scores to algal-biomass, habitat, basin-characteristics, nutrient, and biological-community data in the Upper Wabash River Basin, Indiana, 2003. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5231, 25 p.

Notes: This study found no significant relations between the periphyton principal component sites scores with nutrients but did find significant relations with fish and invertebrate attributes and metrics. Unlike the 2001 and 2001 studies, seston principal component sites scores were not significantly related to nutrients nor fish and invertebrate attributes and metrics.

Royer, T.V., David, M.B., Gentry, L.E., Mitchell, C.A., Starks, K.M., Heatherly II, Thomas, and Whiles, M.R., 2008. Assessment of Chlorophyll-a as a criterion for establishing nutrient standards in the streams and rivers of Illinois. Journal of Environmental Quality, 37, p. 437-447.

Notes: Among all sites in this study (more than 100 statewide), the median total phosphorus (TP) and total nitrogen concentrations (TN) were 0.185 and 5.6 milligrams per liter, respectively, during high discharge conditions. During low discharge conditions, median TP concentrations was 0.168 milligrams per liter, with 25 percent of sites having a TP of greater than 0.326 milligrams per liter. Results suggest sestonic Chlorophyll (CHLa) may be an appropriate criterion for the larger rivers in Illinois but inappropriate for smaller rivers and streams. A study [what study?] using artificial substrates did not find a significant relation between periphyton CHLa and nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations.

Leland, H.V., and Frey, J.W., 2008. Phytoplankton growth and assembly in relation to nutrient supply and other environmental factors in the White River Basin, Indiana (U.S.).  Journal of the International Association of Theoretical and Applied Limnology, vol. 30 (1), p. 147-163.

Notes: Two evenly sized basins with similar flow and annual loadings of total nitrogen and total phosphorus were studied to provide an example of differences between basins driven by point source and non-point sources of nutrients. The West Fork White River, which has a constant source of nutrients from point sources, had 2-4 times greater algal biomass compared to the non-point driven East Fork White River.

Brightbill, R.A., and Munn, M.D., 2008. Environmental and biological data of the nutrient enrichment effects on stream ecosystems project of the National Water Quality Assessment Program, 2003-04. U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 345, 12 p.

Notes: [Do we have notes for this reference?]

Lowe, B.S., Leer, D.R., Frey, J.W., and Caskey, B.J., 2008. Occurrence and distribution of algal biomass and its relations to nutrients and selected basin characteristics in Indiana streams. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5203, 146 p.

Notes: This study found that the frequency and magnitude of stream discharge varied seasonally and annually and greatly influenced algal biomass concentrations through algal scour and drift. Median concentrations of algal biomass in Indiana streams were 41.2 millgram per meter squared for periphyton chlorophyll a (CHLa), 52.1 grams per meter squared for ash-free-dry mass, 2.44 milligrams per liter for seston CHLa, and 0.75 milligrams per liter for particulate organic carbon. Approximately 32 percent of the periphyton CHLa and 6 percent of the seston CHLa samples would be considered eutrophic according to Dodds and others (1998) nutrient boundary levels. There were no significant relations among nutrients and periphyton or seston CHLa parameters. The only significant positive relations were observed between summer Particulate organic carbon (POC) and summer total phosphorus as well as summer POC and summer total Kjeldahl nitrogen.

Caskey, B.J. and Frey, J.W., 2009. Biological-community composition in small streams and its relations to habitat, nutrients, and land use in agriculturally dominated landscapes in Indiana and Ohio, 2004, and implications for assessing nutrient conditions in Midwest streams. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009-5055, 21 p.

Notes: In this national study, sites were selected to maximize the effects of nutrients on biological communities and minimize the effects from non-nutrient related variables such as basin size, substrate, and ecoregion. Despite having a gradient of nutrient concentrations of low to high in August, the algae, fish, and invertebrate communities all reflected eutrophic conditions. Habitat variables had a stronger effect on biological communities than nutrients.

Caskey, B.J., Frey, J.W., and Selvaratnam Shivi, 2010. Breakpoint Analysis and Assessment of Selected Stressor Variables on Benthic Macroinvertebrate and Fish Communities in Indiana Streams: Implications for Developing Nutrient Criteria. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5026, 35 p., plus CD-Rom containing eight appendixes.

Notes:  This study found that biological communities from 321 sites in Indiana were dominated by eutrophic species and the initial relations between the causal (total nitrogen, total phosphorus, periphyton and seston chlorophyll a, and turbidity) and response (biological communities and attributes) variables were weak. Consequently, analytical and ecological censoring methods were used, which strengthened the relations between the causal and response variables.  Breakpoints were calculated for the ecological and statistical significant relations.  Total nitrogen breakpoints ranged from 2.4 to 3.3 milligrams per liter, suggesting hypereutrophic conditions and the total phosphorus breakpoints ranged from 0.042 to 0.129 milligrams per liter, suggesting mesotrophic to eutrophic conditions when compared to Dodds trophic classifications.

Frey, J.W., Bell, A.H., Hambrook Berkman, J.A., and Lorenz, D.L., 2011. Assessment of nutrient enrichment by use of algal-, invertebrate-, and fish-community attributes in wadeable streams in ecoregions surrounding the Great Lakes. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5009, 49 p.

Notes:  The objective of this study was to determine the algal, invertebrate, and fish taxa and community attributes that best reflect the effects of nutrients along a gradient of low to high nutrient concentrations in wadeable, primarily Midwestern streams in Nutrient Ecoregions VI, VII, and VIII. The results indicated breakpoints from all biological communities that were generally 3–5 times higher in the south than the north. In the north, breakpoints with similar lower concentrations were found for total nitrogen from all biological communities (around 0.60 milligram per liter) and for total phosphorus (between 0.02 and 0.03 milligram per liter) for the algae and invertebrate communities.

Caskey, B.J., Bunch, A.R., Shoda, M.E., Frey, J.W., Selvaratnam Shivi, and Miltner, R.J., 2012. Identifying Nutrient Reference Sites in Nutrient-Enriched Regions: Using Algal, Invertebrate, and Fish-Community Stressor-Breakpoint Thresholds in Indiana Rivers and Streams, 2005-9. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5243, 28 p.

Notes:  The total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) concentrations in this study showed a nutrient gradient that spanned three orders of magnitude. Sites were divided into Low, Medium, and High nutrient groups based on the 10th and 75th percentiles. The invertebrate and fish communities were similar along the nutrient gradient, using an analysis of similarity, demonstrating there was not a species trophic gradient. Within all nutrient groups, invertebrate and fish communities were dominated by nutrient tolerant taxa (algivores, herbivores, and omnivores) that included invertebrates. To determine if low nutrient concentrations at some sites were caused by algal uptake and not oligotrophic conditions, sites with low nutrient concentrations (less than 10th percentile for TN or TP) were examined based on the Low (less than or equal to the 10th percentile) and High (greater than the 75th percentile) periphyton CHLa concentrations. Within low nutrient sites, the invertebrate and fish communities were statistically different between Low and High periphyton CHLa categories.