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FSU researchers find most nitrogen in Gulf of Mexico comes from coastal waters

Almost all of the nitrogen that fertilizes life in the open ocean of the Gulf of Mexico is carried into the gulf from shallower coastal areas, researchers from Florida State University found.

The work, published in Nature Communications, is crucial to understanding the food web of that ecosystem, which is a spawning ground for several commercially valuable species of fish, including the Atlantic bluefin tuna, which was a focus of the research.

“The open-ocean Gulf of Mexico is important for a lot of reasons,” said Michael Stukel, an associate professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science and a co-author of the paper. “It’s a sort of ocean desert, with very few predators to threaten larvae, which is part of what makes it a good spawning ground for several species of tuna and mahi-mahi. There are all kinds of other organisms that live out in the open ocean as well.”

The food web in the Gulf of Mexico that supports newly born larvae and other organisms starts with phytoplankton. Like plants on land, phytoplankton need sunlight and nutrients, including nitrogen, to grow. The researchers wanted to understand how the nitrogen they need was entering the gulf.