Explaining the nearly ubiquitous absence of nitrogen fixation by planktonic organisms in strongly nitrogen-limited estuaries presents a major challenge to aquatic ecologists. In freshwater lakes of moderate productivity, nitrogen limitation is seldom maintained for long since heterocystic, nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria bloom, fix nitrogen, and alleviate the nitrogen limitation. In marked contrast to lakes, this behavior occurs in only a few estuaries worldwide. Primary production is limited by nitrogen in most temperate estuaries, yet no measurable planktonic nitrogen fixation occurs. In this paper, we present the hypothesis that the absence of planktonic nitrogen fixers from most estuaries is due to an interaction of bottom-up and top-down controls. The availability of Mo, a trace metal required for nitrogen fixation, is lower in estuaries than in freshwater lakes. This is not an absolute physiological constraint against the occurrence of nitrogen-fixing organisms, but the lower Mo availability may slow the growth rate of these organisms. The slower growth rate makes nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria in estuaries more sensitive to mortality from grazing by Zooplankton and benthic organisms.
We use a simple, mechanistically based simulation model to explore this hypothesis. The model correctly predicts the timing of the formation of heterocystic, cyanobacterial blooms in freshwater lakes and the magnitude of the rate of nitrogen fixation. The model also correctly predicts that high Zooplankton biomasses in freshwaters can partially suppress blooms of nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, even in strongly nitrogen-limited lakes. Further, the model indicates that a relatively small and environmentally realistic decrease in Mo availability, such as that which may occur in seawater compared to freshwaters due to sulfate inhibition of Mo assimilation, can suppress blooms of heterocystic cyanobacteria and prevent planktonic nitrogen fixation. For example, the model predicts that at a Zooplankton biomass of 0.2 mg l−1, cyanobacteria will bloom and fix nitrogen in lakes but not in estuaries of full-strength seawater salinity because of the lower Mo availability. Thus, the model provides strong support for our hypothesis that bottom-up and top-down controls may interact to cause the absence of planktonic nitrogen fixation in most estuaries. The model also provides a basis for further exploration of this hypothesis in individual estuarine systems and correctly predicts that planktonic nitrogen fixation can occur in low salinity estuaries, such as the Baltic Sea, where Mo availability is greater than in higher salinity estuaries.