Phytoplankton and Primary Production in the Red Sea

  • Mohammad Ali B. QurbanEmail author
  • Mohideen Wafar
  • Moritz Heinle
Part of the Springer Oceanography book series (SPRINGEROCEAN)


Studies on phytoplankton and primary production in the Red Sea are few and far between, and even in the few that have been conducted, most cover only a limited area. The last review of phytoplankton and primary production by Ismael (2015) reaffirmed the oligotrophic nature of the Red Sea and the north-to-south increasing trend in chlorophyll concentrations and rates of primary production. Also, in the above review the inventory of phytoplankton species was enlarged to 389 from the earlier record of 181 by Halim (1969). Since then, four research cruises undertaken in the Saudi Arabian waters of the Red Sea (2012–2015) have added a considerable amount of data on the patterns of primary production in the Red Sea and this review builds on that of Ismael (2015) by presenting the new findings. The levels of biomass and production in the Red Sea are relatively low, with a discernable north-south gradient. Their distribution is influenced by anticyclonic eddies, which entrain the nutrient-rich Gulf of Aden Intermediate Water across the Red Sea basin. Biomass and production in regions of eddy currents are twice as high as those elsewhere, suggesting that the notion that the Red Sea is oligotrophic needs to be revised. The injection of nutrients into the euphotic zone in the eddy boundary currents favours the proliferation of producers across a range of size classes rather than of a single class. As with any nutrient-poor tropical sea, the primary production in the Red Sea is supported up to 80% by nano- and picoplankton. Though the contributions of microplankton (diatoms and dinoflagellates) appear to be less significant, the phytoplankton diversity is quite high. With additional records of 74 species from the samples in the four cruises, the current inventory of phytoplankton stands at 463 species. The review also provides suggestions on prospective avenues of phytoplankton research in the Red Sea waters. These include extensive spatial and seasonal coverage of primary production, the importance of benthic production, a better evaluation of nitrogen (N) fixation by Trichodesmium spp., the role of allochthonous nutrient sources (such as dust) in increasing the productivity, additional inventories of phytoplankton species, especially those belonging to the nano- and picoplankton size classes, and the assessment of the importance of the heterotrophy and microbial loop in the food chain dynamics. Experimental studies on the physiology of phytoplankton that already live at extreme conditions of temperature and salinity in the Red Sea could also help to understand how phytoplankton in other seas would react to the effects of global warming and climate change.



We thank the Center for Environment and Water, Research Institute, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, for encouragement and support.


  1. Acker J, Leptoukh G, Shen S, Zhu T, Kempler S (2008) Remotely-sensed chlorophyll a observations of the northern Red Sea indicate seasonal variability and influence of coastal reefs. J Mar Syst 69:191–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Al-Harbi SM, Khomayis HS (2010) Eutrophication and chlorophyll-a in a severely polluted coastal water of Jeddah, Red Sea. JKAU Mar Sci 21:15–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baars MA, Schalk PH, Veldhuis MJW (1998) Seasonal fluctuations in plankton biomass and productivity in the ecosystems of the Somali current, Gulf of Aden, and southern Red Sea. In: Sherman K, Okemwa E, Ntiba M (eds) Large marine ecosystems of the Indian Ocean: assessment, sustainability, and management. Blackwell Science, Oxford, pp 143–174Google Scholar
  4. Badran MI (2001) Dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll a and nutrients: Seasonal cycles in waters of the Gulf Aqaba, Red Sea. Aquat Ecosyst Health Manage 4:139–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Badran MI, Foster P (1998) Environmental quality of the Jordanian coastal waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea. Aquat Ecosyst Health Manage 1:75–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Badran M, Rasheed M, Manasrah R, Al-Najjar T (2005) Nutrient flux fuels the summer primary productivity in the oligotrophic water of the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea). Oceanologia 47:47–60Google Scholar
  7. Churchill JH, Bower A, McCorkle DC, Abualnaja Y (2014) The transport of nutrient-rich Indian Ocean water through the Red Sea and into coastal reef systems. J Mar Res 72:165–181CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dham VV, Wafar M, Heredia AM (2005) Nitrogen uptake by size-fractionated phytoplankton in mangrove waters. Aquat Microb Ecol 41:281–291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dorgham MM, El-Sherbiny MM, Hanifi MH (2012) Environmental properties of the southern Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea. Egypt. Medit Mar Sci 13:179–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Edwards FJ (1987) Climate and oceanography. In: Edwards AJ, Head SM (eds) Key environments: Red Sea. Pergamon Press, Oxford, pp 45–70Google Scholar
  11. Elawad AES (2012) Study of inter-annual variability of chlorophyll in the Red Sea. Thesis, University of Bergen, M.Sc, p 49Google Scholar
  12. Fahmy MA (2003) Water quality in the Red Sea coastal waters (Egypt): analysis of spatial and temporal variability. Chem Ecol 19:67–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fahmy MA, Sheriadah MA, Soeud AA, Rahman SMA, Shindy M (2005) Hydrography and chemical characteristics of the coastal water along the Gulf of Suez. Egypt J Aquat Res 31:1–14Google Scholar
  14. Halim Y (1969) Plankton of the Red Sea. Oceanogr Mar Biol Ann Rev 7:231–275Google Scholar
  15. Ismael AA (2015) Phytoplankton of the Red Sea. In: Rasul NMA, Stewart ICF (eds) The Red Sea: the formation, morphology, oceanography and environment of a young ocean basin. Springer Earth System Sciences, Berlin Heidelberg, pp 567–583Google Scholar
  16. Khmeleva NN (1970) On the primary production in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Biol Morja Kiew 21:107–133Google Scholar
  17. Khomayis HS (2002) The annual cycle of the annual cycle of nutrient salts and chlorophyll-a in the coastal waters of Jeddah, Red Sea. J King Abdulaziz Univ Mar Sci 13:131–145CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Labiosa RG, Arrigo KR, Genin A, Monismith SG, van Dijken G (2003) The interplay between upwelling and deep convective mixing in determining the seasonal phytoplankton dynamics in the Gulf of Aqaba: Evidence from SeaWiFS and MODIS. Limnol Oceanogr 48:2355–2368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Lenz J, Schneider G, El Hag AGD, Gradinger R, Fritsche P, Moigis A, Pillen T, Rolke M, Weisse T (1988) Planktonological data from the central Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden—RV ‘Meteor’, cruise No. 5/2, January-March 1987. Ber Inst Meereskde Kiel 180Google Scholar
  20. Levanon-Spanier I, Padan E, Reisis Z (1979) Primary production in a desert-enclosed sea—the Gulf of Elat (Aqaba), Red Sea. Deep-Sea Res 26:673–685CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Longhurst A, Sathyendranath S, Platt T, Caverhill C (1995) An estimate of global primary production in the ocean from satellite radiometer data. J Plankton Res 17:1245–1271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Maillard C, Soliman GF (1986) Hydrography of the Red Sea and exchanges with the Indian Ocean in summer. Oceanol Acta 9:249–269Google Scholar
  23. Malone TC (1980) Algal size. In: Morris I (ed) The physiological ecology of phytoplankton. Univ Calif Press, pp 433–464Google Scholar
  24. Naqvi SWA, Hansen HP, Kureishy TW (1986) Nutrient uptake and regeneration rations in the Red Sea with reference to the nutrient budgets. Oceanol Acta 9:271–275Google Scholar
  25. Petzold M (1986) Untersuchungen zur horizontalen und vertikalen Verteilung des Phytoplanktons in Roten Meer. Univ Hamburg, Diplomarbeit Institut fur Hydrobiologie und FischereiwissenschaftGoogle Scholar
  26. Quadfasel D, Baunder H (1993) Gyre-scale circulation cells in the Red Sea. Oceanol Acta 16:221–229Google Scholar
  27. Qurban MA, Balala AC, Kumar S, Bhavya PS, Wafar M (2014) Primary production in the northern Red Sea. J Mar Syst 132:75–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Qurban MA, Wafar M, Jyothibabu R, Manikandan KP (2017) Patterns of primary production in the Red Sea. J Mar Syst 169:87–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Raitsos DE, Pradhan Y, Brewin RJW, Stenchikov G, Hoteit I (2013) Remote sensing the phytoplankton seasonal succession of the Red Sea. PLoS ONE 8(6):e64909. Scholar
  30. Rasheed M, Badran MI, Richter C, Huettel M (2002) Effect of reef framework and bottom sediment on nutrient enrichment in a coral reef of the Gulf of Aqaba. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 239:277–285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Shaikh EA, Roff JC, Dowidar NM (1986) Phytoplankton ecology and production in the Red Sea off Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Mar Biol 92:405–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Slawyk G, Collos Y, Auclair J-C (1977) The use of the 13C and 15 N isotopes for the simultaneous measurement of carbon and nitrogen turnover rates in marine phytoplankton. Limnol Oceanogr 22:925–932CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Souvermezoglout E, Metzl N, Poisson A (1989) Red Sea budgets of salinity, nutrients and carbon calculated in the Strait of Bab-El-Mandab during the summer and winter seasons. J Mar Res 47:441–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stambler N (2005) Bio-optical properties of the northern Red Sea and the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba) during winter 1999. J Sea Res 54:186–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Wafar M (2016) A note on the flow of Gulf of Aden Intermediate Water in the Red Sea. J Mar Sys 163:125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Wafar M, Ashraf M, Manikandan KP, Qurban MA, Kattan Y (2016a) Propagation of Gulf of Aden Intermediate Water (GAIW) in the Red Sea during autumn and its importance to biological production. J Mar Sys 154:243–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wafar M, Qurban MA, Ashraf M, Manikandan KP, Flandez AV, Balala AC (2016b) Patterns of distribution of inorganic nutrients in Red Sea and their implications to primary production. J Mar Sys 156:86–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Weikert H (1987) Plankton and the pelagic environment. In: Edwards A, Head SM (eds) Red Sea. Pergamon Press, Oxford, Key Environment Series, pp 90–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Yentsch CS (1965) Distribution of chlorophyll and phaeophytin in the open ocean. Deep-Sea Res 12:653–666Google Scholar
  40. Yentsch CS, Wood L (1961) Measurements of primary productivity in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Ref. 61–6, Appendix 8:6Google Scholar
  41. Zhan P, Subramanian AC, Yao F, Hoteit I (2014) Eddies in the Red Sea: a statistical and dynamical study. J Geophys Res Oceans 119. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mohammad Ali B. Qurban
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Mohideen Wafar
    • 1
  • Moritz Heinle
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Environment & Water, Research Institute, King Fahd University of Petroleum and MineralsDhahranSaudi Arabia
  2. 2.Geosciences DepartmentKing Fahd University of Petroleum and MineralsDhahranSaudi Arabia

Personalised recommendations