Changes in delivery of river-borne nutrients such as dissolved phosphate, nitrate and silicate, owing to land-use changes and anthropogenic emissions, are known to result in eutrophication1— enhanced phytoplankton blooms—and more severe hypoxic events2–1 in many enclosed bays and seas. Although similar ecological effects might be expected on continental shelves, the occurrence of such eutrophication has remained unresolved5. Here we present evidence of eutrophication of the continental shelf near the outflow of the Mississippi river, obtained by quantifying biologically bound silica (BSi) in diatom remnants within dated sediment cores. BSi accumulation rates are greatest in water depths of 20 to 50 m within 100 km of the river mouth, and have increased by as much as 100% this century. The increases were substantial by 1980, by which time riverine nitrogen loading had doubled relative to the beginning of the century, even though the silica loading had declined by 50% over the same period. Thus changes in river-borne nutrient loadings can modify coastal food webs and affect the amount and distribution of oxygen in bottom waters on the scale of continental shelves.