Development and validation of an estuarine biotic integrity index

We tested hypotheses about how estuarine fish assemblages respond to habitat degradation and then integrated these responses into an overall index, the Estuarine Biotic Integrity Index (EBI), which summarized observed changes. Fish assemblages (based on trawl catches) and habitat quality were measured monthly or biweekly at nine sites in two estuaries from March 1988 to June 1990. Submerged aquatic vegetation habitats were classified as low or medium quality based on year-round measurements of chemical and physical characteristics (phytoplankton blooms; macroalgae; dissolved oxygen; nutrients; dredged channels). We tested 15 metrics and selected 8 for inclusion in the EBI: total number of species, dominance, fish abundance (number or biomass), number of nursery species, number of estuarine spawning species, number of resident species, proportion of benthic-associated fishes, and proportion abnormal or diseased. Fish assemblages in low-quality sites had lower number of species, density, biomass, and dominance compared with medium-quality sites. Fish abundance peaked in July and August, and was lowest in January to March. The seasonal cycle in low-quality sites was damped compared with medium-quality sites. Abundances of fishes using estuaries as a spawning and nursery area and of benthic species were lower in low-quality sites compared to medium-quality sites. The individual metrics and the overall index correlated with habitat degradation. The EBI based on biomass did not do better than the EBI based on number, indicating that the extra effort to obtain biomass may not be warranted. We suggest the EBI is a useful indicator of estuarine ecosystem status because it reflects the relationship between anthropogenic alterations in estuarine ecosystems and the status of higher trophic levels.
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