When faced with the challenge of trying to describe and organize
what is known about the many varied and diverse waterbodies,
scientists developed the Trophic State Classification System.
It's one of the more commonly used systems worldwide and is
used by Florida LAKEWATCH.
Using this system, waterbodies can be grouped into one of
four categories, called trophicc states," based on their level of
Knowing what these terms mean and how they can be useful
in managing your waterbody could come in handy someday.
By reading this handout, you can learn:
> how water chemistry is used to determine a waterbody's
What criteria are used to define the four trophic states;
Which trophic state category your waterbody fits into; and
Show the Trophic State Classification System can be useful.
The names of the four trophic states, from the lowest
level of biological productivity to the highest, T r w t
are listed below: The root word trophic means
"of or relating to nutrition." The
igotrophic (oh-lig -TR fic) prefixes used in the Trophic State
Oligotrophic (oh-lig-oh-TROH-fic) terminology (see words at left) provide
clues to their meaning.
Oligo means "scant or lacking."
Eutrophic (you-TROH-fic) Meso means "mid-range."
Eu means "good or sufficient."
Hypereutrophic (HI-per-you-troh-fic) Hyper means "over abundant."
Using Water Chemistry To
Determine a Waterbody's Trophic State
It's no coincidence that the Florida LAKEWATCH Program monitors the same four water chemistry parameters
that scientists use to determine a waterbody's trophic state: total chlorophyll, total phosphorus, total nitrogen, and
water clarity. These four parameters serve as indicators of a waterbody's biological productivity its ability to
support life. The word "indicator" is used here, because biological productivity is not something that can be
measured directly. However, it can be estimated. Read on to find out how each parameter relates to the biological
productivity of your waterbody and to its trophic state. (Continued on page 2.)
Florida LAKEWATCH -g
U UNIVERSITY OF Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences
FLORIDA PO Box 110600 Gainesville, FL 32611
Phone: 352/392-4817 Toll Free: 1-800-LAKEWATCH (525-3928)
Institute of Food and Agricultural Scienes Fax: 352/392-4902 E-mail: email@example.comATCH
Four Water Chemistry Parameters to Determine Trophic State:
Chlorophyll is the dominant green pigment found in most algae (the microscopic plant-like organisms living
in a waterbody). Chlorophyll enables algae to use sunlight to make food. In fact, most algae are so dependent
upon chlorophyll pigments for survival that a measurement of the concentration of all the chlorophyll pigments
found in a water sample (called total chlorophyll) can be used to estimate the amount of free floating algae in that
waterbody. When large amounts of total chlorophyll are found in the sample, it generally means there are a lot of
Once we have an estimate of the amount of algae in a waterbody, we can take it a step further and use this
information to estimate a trophic state. Since algae are a basic food source for many aquatic animals, their abun-
dance is a crucial factor in how much life a waterbody can sustain. In general, when measurements of total
chlorophyll are high (indicating lots of algae are present), the waterbody will be more biologically productive.
Phosphorus is a nutrient necessary for the growth of algae and aquatic plants. It's found in many forms in
waterbody sediments and dissolved in the water. LAKEWATCH uses a measurement called "total phosphorus"
that includes all the various forms of phosphorus in a sample.
When this nutrient is in low supply (and all other factors necessary for plant and algae growth are present in
sufficient amounts), low biological productivity can be expected. On the other end of the trophic state scale,
highly productive waterbodies usually have an abundance of phosphorus.
In some waterbodies, phosphorus may be at a level that limits further growth of aquatic plants and/or algae.
When this is true, scientists say phosphorus is the "limiting nutrient."
Nitrogen is also a nutrient necessary for the growth of algae and aquatic plants. The LAKEWATCH
measurement includes the sum of all forms of nitrogen called "total nitrogen." When total nitrogen is in
low supply (and other factors necessary for plant and algae growth are present in sufficient amounts),
low biological productivity can be expected. Like phosphorus, nitrogen can be a limiting nutrient.
Water clarity refers to the clearness or transparency of water. Water clarity is determined by using an
8-inch diameter disk, called a Secchi (pronounced SEC-ee) disk. The maximum depth at which the Secchi disk can be
seen when lowered into the water is measured. Several factors can affect water clarity in the following ways:
Free floating algae in the water can make waterbodies less clear;
Dissolved organic compounds (called tannins) can cause waterbodies to appear reddish or brown; and
Suspended solids (tiny particles stirred up from the waterbody's bottom or washed in from the
watershed) can cause the water to be less clear.
Use Secchi Measurements With A Grain Of Salt
For waterbodies in which the presence of algae is the main factor
that diminishes water clarity, the Secchi disk reading can be used to
form an estimate of the waterbody's biological productivity. In this
case, when the Secchi disk reading is a small number, it would indicate
high levels of algae and therefore high biological productivity.
Basing an estimate of biological productivity on water clarity alone
is an attractive option, because the measurement is inexpensive and
simple. However, if dissolved organic compounds (tannins) or
suspended solids are present in significant amounts, this method
may be misleading giving the impression the waterbody is more
biologically productive than it actually is. LAKEWATCH measures
both water clarity and total chlorophyll (algae) in order to get a
more realistic picture.
more realistic picture. When the amount of algae in a lake is high, the
Secchi disk disappears from view at a shallow depth.
There are several different Trophic State Classification Systems being used today.
In 1980, two scientists, Forsberg and Ryding, developed criteria for classifying lakes into trophic
states based on four water chemistry parameters (total chlorophyll, total phosphorus, total nitro-
gen, and water clarity). Although developed for Swedish lakes, their criteria work well for lakes in
Florida and have been adopted by Florida LAKEWATCH. Definitions of the four trophic states,
descriptions of typical waterbodies in each trophic state, and the Forsberg and Ryding criteria are
Oligotrophic waterbodies have the lowest level of biological productivity.
Criteria: total chlorophyll is less than 3 [tg/L*
total phosphorus is less than 15 [tg/L ml '=i
total nitrogen is less than 400 [tg/L
water clarity is greater than 13 feet
A typical oligotrophic waterbody will have clear water,
few aquatic plants,few fish, not much and a
Mesotrophic waterbodies have a moderate level of biological productivity.
Criteria: total chlorophyll is between 3 and 7 [tg/L
total phosphorus is between 15 and 25 [tg/L
total nitrogen is between 400 and 600 [tg/L
water clarity is between 8 and 13 feet
A typical mesotrophic waterbody will have
moderately clear water and a moderate amount
of aquatic plants.
Eutrophic waterbodies have a high level of biological productivity.
Criteria: total chlorophyll is between 7 and 40 [tg/L ---
total phosphorus is between 25 and 100 [tg/L
total nitrogen is between 600 and 1500 [tg/L
water clarity is between 3 and 8 feet
A typical eutroplic wateruody will emiter nave
lots of aquatic plants and clear water; or it
Shave few aquatic plants and less clear water.
In either case, it has the potential to support
lots of fish and I,'
Hypereutrophic waterbodies have the highest level of biological productivity.
Criteria: total chlorophyll is greater than 40 [tg/L ---
total phosphorus is greater than 100 [tg/L
total nitrogen is greater than 1500 [tg/L
water clarity is less than 3 feet
A typical hypereutrophic waterbody have very
low water clarity, the potential for lots ' and
S"' and it may have an abundance of aquatic
* The unit of measurement "micrograms per liter" is plants.
>You can reconcile your expectations with a waterbody's true potential.
For example, oligotrophic waterbodies are often considered better suited for swimming than for fishing or
watching wildlife. Because they typically have low levels of algae, the water is clear an enticing feature for
swimmers. However, the same clear water contains little food and habitat for supporting abundant fish and
On the other end of the trophic spectrum, eutrophic or hypereutrophic waterbodies are often considered better
suited for fishing and bird watching, because they typically have an abundance of food and habitat. Most swimmers,
however, would not enjoy being in the less clear water, or disentangling ilienimcl cs from the abundant plant growth
that is generally characteristic of these highly productive waterbodies.
> You can choose effective management strategies.
Once you've defined management goals for your lake, you will have to choose among different manage-
ment techniques to achieve them. Knowing your waterbody's trophic state can help you make an informed
decision and improve your chances for success.
For example, if your waterbody were oligotrophic and more trophy bass were desired, it would be a
mistake to merely stock more fish. There wouldn't be enough food to support them. A more effective manage-
ment option might be to add nutrients to the waterbody, as is done by fisheries management agencies, to
increase the amount of food (algae) and/or plants (habitat) in the water. In contrast, if your waterbody were
eutrophic, a better choice of management options might be to impose restrictions on the size of bass that can
be harvested from the waterbody (a slot limit), rather than adding nutrients.
> You can communicate more effectively among citizens and water management professionals.
Using the trophic state vocabulary allows us to describe a waterbody and its biological productivity in a single
word. For example, to say a waterbody is oligotrophic should evoke a picture of crystal clear water, few aquatic plants,
a sandy bottom, few fish, and scarce wildlife. Although some professionals debate the specifics, these descriptions are
accurate enough to be extremely useful in water management communication.
> You can monitor over the long term to see if your waterbody's trophic state changes.
Many people are concerned about the impact of activities on their waterbody factors like increasing population,
nearby mining, drought, flooding, or others. However, some change is normal in living systems like waterbodies. How
can you decide which changes are merely normal fluctuations and which are not? Many aquatic scientists view
changes as being significant when they result in a waterbody moving from one trophic state to another. In this way the
trophic state classification provides a useful yardstick for evaluating the seriousness of changes in your waterbody.
Aquatic plants play a major role in a waterbody's biological productivity by providing habitat for aquatic organisms
and support for attached microorganisms like algae and small animals. Aquatic plant abundance also serves as
an important indicator of a waterbody's trophic state. Consequently, some waterbodies may be classified into the
wrong trophic state if the abundance of aquatic plants is not taken into account. For example, when submersed
aquatic vegetation covers more than 50% of a waterbody's bottom, there will generally be less algae floating in
the water.0 The resulting low chlorophyll measurements may cause some waterbody managers to classify a
waterbody as having a low level of biological productivity, even though the presence of large amounts of sub-
mersed aquatic plants clearly demonstrates that it is highly productive.
Unfortunately, it's expensive and time-consuming to perform a survey of aquatic plants, so these important
data are often not available. In an effort to bridge the information gap, Florida LAKEWATCH staff and University
of Florida students are conducting aquatic plant surveys on selected LAKEWATCH waterbodies during the
summer months, as funding permits.
O One explanation is that either the submersed plants, or perhaps the algae attached to them, use the available phosphorus
in the water, depriving the . . algae of this necessary nutrient. Another explanation is that the submersed plants
anchor the nutrient-rich bottom sediments in place the action .' waves, and human. depriving the
algae of phosphorus contained in the muds that would otherwise be stirred up. . . it's thought that
algae I attach to underwater plants instead "" in the water
The Trophic Classification System is just one way to group lakes. To discuss this handout or
for more information, call our toll-free number 1-800-LAKEWATCH (1-800-525-3928).
4 We welcome your questions, suggestions, and comments.