The sediment p/r ratio refers to the balance between benthic production and benthic respiration.
In shallow coastal waterways in southeastern Australia, sediment p/r ratios of >0.48, 0.34 - 0.48, 0.25 - 0.34 and <0.25% are indicative of oligotrophic, mesotrophic, eutrophic and hypertrophic conditions, respectively . In more general terms, sediment p/r ratios of > 1 and < 1 indicate net autotrophic and net heterotrophic sediment conditions .
Sediments that are net autotrophic produce more carbon than they respire, and tend to take up ammonium from the water column . In comparison, sediments that are net heterotrophic are decomposing excess organic matter, which consumes dissolved oxygen . Such sediments are more at risk for anoxia, and tend to release bioavailable ammonium to the water column .
Some indicators that are closely related to sediment p/r ratio include denitrification efficiency and benthic CO2 flux. Water column PCO2 is also a measure of net autotrophic vs. net heterotrophic conditions in aquatic systems.
Sediment p/r ratios decrease mainly in response to carbon loading, which can be estimated by benthic CO2 flux determinations. A large proportion of the carbon loading comes from algal biomass produced in the water column. The algae increases turbidity, which decreases the amount of benthic photosynthesis. The algae also load the sediment with carbon when they die, increasing respiration. The overall effect is lowered p/r ratios. Coastal discharges including stormwater and sewage outfalls also convey readily degradable organic matter from catchments to coastal waterways, which can further lower sediment p/r ratios.
Sediment p/r ratios in estuaries are determined using benthic chambers. Benthic chambers are open-bottom containers (usually constructed out of perspex) that enclose an area of sediment and overlying water. The chambers are deployed on the sediments/substratum, to capture solute and gas movement (including carbon dioxide and oxygen) between the sediment and the water column. Sediment p/r ratios are calculated from dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide fluxes.