SUSCEPTIBILITY OF SALT MARSHES TO NUTRIENT ENRICHMENT AND PREDATOR REMOVAL
Salt marsh ecosystems have been considered not susceptible to nitrogen overloading because early studies suggested that salt marshes adsorbed excess nutrients in plant growth. However, the possible effect of nutrient loading on species composition, and the combined effects of nutrients and altered species composition on structure and function, was largely ignored. Failure to understand interactions between nutrient loading and species composition may lead to severe underestimates of the impacts of stresses. We altered whole salt marsh ecosystems (-60000 m2/treatment) by addition of nutrients in flooding waters and by reduction of a key predatory fish, the mummichog. We added nutrients (N and P; 1 5-fold increase over ambient conditions) directly to the flooding tide to mimic the way anthropogenic nutrients are delivered to marsh ecosystems. Despite the high concentrations (70 mmol N/L) achieved in the water column, our annual N loadings (15-60 g NirT^yr"1) were an order of magnitude less than most plot-level fertilization experiments, yet we detected responses at several trophic levels. Preliminary calculations suggest that 30-40% of the added N was removed by the marsh during each tidal cycle. Creek bank Spartina alterniflora and high marsh S. patens production increased, but not stunted high marsh S. alterniflora. Microbial production increased in the fertilized creek bank S. alterniflora habitat where benthic microalgae also increased. We found top-down control of benthic microalgae by killifish, but only under nutrient addition and in the opposite direction (increase) than that predicted by a fish-invertebrate-microalgae trophic cascade. Surprisingly, infauna declined in abundance during the first season of fertilization and with fish removal. Our results demonstrate ecological effects of both nutrient addition and mummichog reduction at the whole-system level, including evidence for synergistic interactions.