1. Particulate organic material (POM) is an important source of energy and nutrients in aquatic ecosystems. The decomposition of this material is typically studied using the litter bag technique. However, this method has inherent limitations that can preclude the estimation of in situ decomposition rates, especially for fine particles. In this study, we tried to circumvent these limitations through the use of enzymatic decomposition models (EDMs), which relate mass loss rates to lignocellulase activities. With this approach, we investigated the in situ processing of three size ranges of detritus in a Typha wetland.

2. Litter was collected, dried and sorted into three size ranges [coarse (C) > 4, medium (M) 0.5–4 and fine (F) 0.063–0.5 mm] and placed in litter bags that were attached to the sediment surface at two sites in a Typha wetland in May 1994. Over a 7-month period, litter bags were collected and analysed for mass loss and the activities of six extracellular enzymes involved in the degradation of lignocellulose. In situ POM was collected concurrently, sorted into the same three size ranges and assayed for the same suite of enzymes. Additional cores were taken for the determination of organic matter standing stocks and particle size distribution.

3. Mean mass loss rates for CPOM, MPOM and FPOM were -0.139, -0.073 and -0.053% day−1, respectively. Only CPOM rates were significantly different between sites. For CPOM and FPOM there were strong linear relationships between mass loss and cumulative enzyme activities; the mass loss data for MPOM were erratic and precluded the development of reliable enzyme models. EDMs for CPOM and FPOM were constructed from regressions relating mass loss to average cumulative lignocellulase activity, and used to estimate instantaneous in situ decomposition rates. These rates varied by site and throughout the year but averaged -0.204 and -0.045% day−1, respectively. Based upon measurements of OM standing stock and particle size distributions, POM processing rates of 1100–1400 g m2 yr−1 were calculated. These rates are near the upper end of the range for net annual production in Typha wetlands, suggesting that there is little net accumulation of POM.

4. Despite some problems, the EDM method has the potential to facilitate studies of detrital dynamics in large, heterogeneous systems.