The nature of particulate organic matter was studied in suspended material sampled by bottles, particles collected by sediment traps and deposits from deltaic and open sea ecosystems of the northwestern Mediterranean. Elemental analyses were combined with pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and with analysis of individual compounds such as phenols separated by high-performance liquid chromatography. In the Rhône delta, a multilayered system was observed. The surficial turbid layer was enriched with fresh material of river origin. Organic matter was more altered and richer in phenols in the bottom nepheloid layer. The river regime determined the nature and quantity of suspended material: when in spate, degraded organic matter previously deposited in the river bed was transported to the sea, thereby inducing an increase of pyrolysis derived aromatic hydrocarbons. On the other hand, phenolic aldehydes increased in the bottom nepheloid layer. When water level was low, organic matter seemed to be of more local origin. The content of phenols and nitrogen-containing compounds increased. The influence of the Rhône River decreased off the mouth, when terrestrial markers were diluted by products deriving from phytoplanktonic activity. Compared with suspended material, trapped organic matter was coarser, more degraded and contained more aromatic hydrocarbons. It was different in nature and size, indicating that it was trapped over a longer period. Deposits contained altered organic matter resulting from degrading processes in the water column. Sediments showed a double trend off the mouth of the river; an increase in nitrogen-containing compounds, indicating a more marine character, and a decrease in phenols and carbohydrates deriving from the terrestrial ligno-cellulosic complex. In the southwestern part of the Gulf of Lions, in the Têt prodelta, organic matter from sediment traps was fresher than in the Rhône delta. Phenols and some carbohydrates rapidly decreased from the prodelta due to a lower runoff. During the spate, suspended material was rapidly deposited and sediments were enriched in terrestrial phenols. In the open sea environment, in the Lacaze-Duthiers Canyon at 645 m, in summer, the euphotic zone was rich in amino-sugars and contained a large diversity of phenols deriving from fish fecal pellets. In winter/spring, the development of phytoplanktonic blooms in surficial layers led to high contents of nitrogenous compounds. In deeper layers, the nature of organic matter was different from surficial layers in summer and more homogeneous in winter, although a flux of degraded material rich in pyrolysis-derived aromatic hydrocarbons and poor in nitrogenous compounds progressively sank towards the bottom. The two marine prodeltas were compared: organic matter was more degraded in suspended material and sediments collected in the submarine delta of the Rhône River. Organic material originating from the river was transported further offshore, as indicated by a higher content of aromatic hydrocarbons and phenols. In the southwestern part of the Gulf of Lions, the prodelta reflected the influence of local rivers, with lower discharges. © 1990.