The influence of different nutrient sources on the seasonal variation of nutrients and phytoplankton was assessed in the northern area of the Perth coastal margin, south-western Australia. This nearshore area is shallow, semi-enclosed by submerged reefs, oligotrophic, nitrogen-limited and receives sewage effluent via submerged outfalls. Analysis of 14 year of field observations showed seasonal variability in the concentration of dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phytoplankton biomass, measured as chlorophyll-a. For 2007-2008, we quantified dissolved inorganic nitrogen inputs from the main nutrient sources: superficial runoff, groundwater, wastewater treatment plant effluent, atmospheric deposition and exchange with surrounding coastal waters. We validated a three-dimensional hydrodynamic-ecological model and then used it to assess nutrient-phytoplankton dynamics. The model reproduced the temporal and spatial variations of nitrate and chlorophyll-a satisfactorily. Such variations were highly influenced by exchange through the open boundaries driven by the wind field. An alongshore (south-north) flow dominated the flux through the domain, with dissolved inorganic nitrogen annual mean net-exportation. Further, when compared with the input of runoff, the contributions from atmospheric-deposition, groundwater and wastewater effluent to the domain's inorganic nitrogen annual balance were one, two and three orders of magnitude higher, respectively. Inputs through exchange with offshore waters were considerably larger than previous estimates. When the offshore boundary was forced with remote-sensed derived data, the simulated chlorophyll-a results were closer to the field measurements. Our comprehensive analysis demonstrates the strong influence that the atmosphere-water surface interactions and the offshore dynamics have on the nearshore ecosystem. The results suggest that any additional nutrient removal at the local wastewater treatment plant is not likely to extensively affect the seasonal variations of nutrients and chlorophyll-a. The approach used proved useful for improving the understanding of the coastal ecosystem. © 2013 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.