Nutrient supply and mercury dynamics in marine ecosystems: A conceptual model

Charles T. Driscoll, Celia Y. Chen, Chad R. Hammerschmidt, Robert P. Mason, Cynthia C. Gilmour, Elsie M. Sunderland, Ben K. Greenfield, Kate L. Buckman, Carl H. Lamborg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


There is increasing interest and concern over the impacts of mercury (Hg) inputs to marine ecosystems. One of the challenges in assessing these effects is that the cycling and trophic transfer of Hg are strongly linked to other contaminants and disturbances. In addition to Hg, a major problem facing coastal waters is the impacts of elevated nutrient, particularly nitrogen (N), inputs. Increases in nutrient loading alter coastal ecosystems in ways that should change the transport, transformations and fate of Hg, including increases in fixation of organic carbon and deposition to sediments, decreases in the redox status of sediments and changes in fish habitat. In this paper we present a conceptual model which suggests that increases in loading of reactive N to marine ecosystems might alter Hg dynamics, decreasing bioavailabilty and trophic transfer. This conceptual model is most applicable to coastal waters, but may also be relevant to the pelagic ocean. We present information from case studies that both support and challenge this conceptual model, including marine observations across a nutrient gradient; results of a nutrient-trophic transfer Hg model for pelagic and coastal ecosystems; observations of Hg species, and nutrients from coastal sediments in the northeastern U.S.; and an analysis of fish Hg concentrations in estuaries under different nutrient loadings. These case studies suggest that changes in nutrient loading can impact Hg dynamics in coastal and open ocean ecosystems. Unfortunately none of the case studies is comprehensive; each only addresses a portion of the conceptual model and has limitations. Nevertheless, our conceptual model has important management implications. Many estuaries near developed areas are impaired due to elevated nutrient inputs. Widespread efforts are underway to control N loading and restore coastal ecosystem function. An unintended consequence of nutrient control measures could be to exacerbate problems associated with Hg contamination. Additional focused research and monitoring are needed to critically examine the link between nutrient supply and Hg contamination of marine waters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)118-131
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironmental Research
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Coastal ecosystems
  • Eutrophication
  • Marine ecosystems
  • Mercury
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrients

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • General Environmental Science


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