Open Access

The human impact in the German Bight: Eutrophication during three decades (1962–1991)

  • W. Hickel1,
  • P. Mangelsdorf1 and
  • J. Berg1
Helgoländer Meeresuntersuchungen47:BF02367167


The human impact in the German Bight, in the form of anthropogenic eutrophication, has been documented by a 30-year time-series measurement near the island of Helgoland. Since 1962, the Biologische Anstalt Helgoland has measured inorganic nutrients and phytoplankton abundance from daily samples at Helgoland Roads, a position 60 km off the main source of eutrophication, the River Elbe. Since the early sixties, phosphate concentrations rose for about a decade, levelling off to about twice the former concentrations for another decade, and then decreasing (since 1982) as a result of phosphate-reducing measures. Nitrate concentrations, however, have only increased since 1980/81, following Elbe river flood events. In 1987, three times the former concentrations were reached. A decrease has been observed only since 1991. This different development of phosphorus and nitrogen eutrophication led to a shift of inorganic N/P-ratios in the German Bight. The phosphate increase was more pronounced in the late summer “regeneration mode” conditions, the nitrate increase in the winter months. The eutrophication is not restricted to the inner German Bight and coastal waters of a salinity of <33, but has also occurred in more saline waters at S>33 psu (practical salinity unit), as characteristic for the outer German Bight. In this more saline water, phosphate and nitrate maximum levels occurred three years later, compared with the average Helgoland data, which are more representative of the inner German Bight. It is suggested that suspended particulate organic matter, as a long-distance carrier of nutrients, might have caused this delayed eutrophication in the outer German Bight waters. While the human impact is obvious as to nutrient concentrations, it is less obvious in phytoplankton stock enhancement. A general increase in phytoplankton biomass (about 3–4 times) was found, but this was mainly due to unidentified nanoflagellates of unknown trophic state, and subject to methodological errors. The causal relationships of phytoplankton stocks and eutrophication are not clearly understood, as natural variability is large and hydrographical factors possibly dominate. Additional nutrient input by Elbe river floods did not always result in elevated phytoplankton stocks near Helgoland, while extended periods of vertical density stratification of the German Bight water caused large plankton blooms.