Carbon Flows in the Westerschelde Estuary (the Netherlands) Evaluated by Means of an Ecosystem Model (Moses)

K.E.R. Soetaert, P.M.J. Herman

    Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


    The autotrophic production and heterotrophic consumption of organic matter in the Westerschelde, a highly turbid and eutrophic estuary in the Southwest Netherlands is examined by means of a dynamic simulation model. The model describes the ecologically relevant processes in thirteen spatial compartments and adequately fits most observed data. Three autotrophic processes are included in the model. Net pelagic photosynthetic production is relatively low (average 41. gC m(- 2) yr(-1)) and three spatial compartments near the turbidity maximum zone are respiratory sinks of phytoplankton biomass. According to the model, net phytobenthic primary production is more important than pelagic primary production in the upstream half of the Westerschelde. On the scale of the entire estuary, benthic primary production amounts to about 60% of pelagic primary production. Water-column nitrification, which is very important in the nitrogen cycle, is most pronounced near the turbidity zone where it accounts for the major autotrophic fixation of carbon (up to 27 g C m(-2) yr(-1)). Viewed on the scale of the total estuary, however, the process is not very important. Less than 20% of total organic carbon input to the estuary is primary produced, the remainder is imported from waste discharges and from the river. The degree of heterotrophy of the Westerschelde estuary proved to be one of the highest yet reported. On average 380 g carbon per square metre is net lost per year (range 200-1200 gC m(-2) yr(-1)). The yearly community respiration (bacterial mineralization, respiration of higher trophic levels and sedimentation) is 4 to 35 times (estuarine mean of 6) higher than the net production. This degree of heterotrophy is highest near the turbidity maximum and generally decreases from the freshwater to the seaward boundary. About 75% of all carbon losses can be ascribed to pelagic heterotrophic processes; the sediment is only locally important. Mineralisation rates are highest in the turbidity region, but as only a fraction of total carbon resides here, less than 20% of all organic carbon is lost in this part of the estuary. This result is in contradiction with a previous budget of the estuary, based on data of the early seventies, where more than 80% of all carbon was estimated to be lost in the turbidity zone. Part of this discrepancy is probably caused by changes that have occurred in the estuary since that time. Due to the high heterotrophic activity, nearly all imported and in situ produced carbon is lost in the estuary itself and the Westerschelde is an insignificant source of organic matter to the coastal zone. The model estuary acts as a trap for reactive organic matter, both from the land, from the sea or in situ produced. Internal cycling, mainly in the water column, results in the removal of most of the carbon while the more refractory part is exported to the sea. [KEYWORDS: Carbon; budget; autotrophy; heterotrophy; westerschelde; estuary Ems-dollard estuary; bacteria]
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)247-266
    Issue number1-3
    Publication statusPublished - 1995


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