Eelgrass beds are important habitats for many organisms, but there has been a decline in the area covered by eelgrass during the last decades due to increased eutrophication resulting in increased shading from phytoplankton. The use of herbicides in terrestrial agriculture has also increased over the last century, and while the effects of herbicides on non-target organisms have been well studied in freshwater they are overlooked in coastal waters. It is not known if herbicides have any effect on the distribution of eelgrass (Zostera marina), or how natural phytoplankton communities respond to the same herbicides.
Direct and indirect effects of the herbicides Glyphosate, Bentazone and MCPA both as single toxicants and as mixtures, on the eelgrass plants were investigated in this study. The direct effects on eelgrass were examined by measuring the four different endpoints; the relatively growth rate as length and weight, the chlorophyll a and b ratio, as well as the RNA–DNA ratio, at the end of a 3 days exposure period. The indirect effect was investigated by measuring the effect on a natural phytoplankton production from Roskilde Fjord six times during 1 year.
The results showed that the chlorophyll a–b and RNA–DNA ratios were the most sensitive endpoints in single herbicide experiments.
The effects of herbicide mixtures on eelgrass were much larger compared to the single substances. Nearly a halving was found for both the relatively growth rate in length and weight, and the RNA–DNA as well as the chlorophyll a–b ratios were also significant reduced. This indicates a possible synergistic effect, and calculations based on the concentration addition model indicate that the low concentrations mixture has a synergistic effect, whereas the high concentration mixture has an antagonistic effect on eelgrass (Z. marina). The low concentrations mixture is the one with the highest relevance for coastal areas.
The effect on phytoplankton showed some variation over the year but mainly in a stimulation in primary production. This means that herbicides affect eelgrass both directly and indirectly.