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Ecol Appl. 2006 Aug;16(4):1251-66.

The biological condition gradient: a descriptive model for interpreting change in aquatic ecosystems.

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Maine Department of Environmental Protection, State House Station 17, Augusta 04333, USA.


The United States Clean Water Act (CWA; 1972, and as amended, U.S. Code title 33, sections 1251-1387) provides the long-term, national objective to "restore and maintain the ... biological integrity of the Nation's waters" (section 1251). However, the Act does not define the ecological components, or attributes, that constitute biological integrity nor does it recommend scientific methods to measure the condition of aquatic biota. One way to define biological integrity was described over 25 years ago as a balanced, integrated, adaptive system. Since then a variety of different methods and indices have been designed and applied by each state to quantify the biological condition of their waters. Because states in the United States use different methods to determine biological condition, it is currently difficult to determine if conditions vary across states or to combine state assessments to develop regional or national assessments. A nationally applicable model that allows biological condition to be interpreted independently of assessment methods will greatly assist the efforts of environmental practitioners in the United States to (1) assess aquatic resources more uniformly and directly and (2) communicate more clearly to the public both the current status of aquatic resources and their potential for restoration. To address this need, we propose a descriptive model, the Biological Condition Gradient (BCG) that describes how 10 ecological attributes change in response to increasing levels of stressors. We divide this gradient of biological condition into six tiers useful to water quality scientists and managers. The model was tested by determining how consistently a regionally diverse group of biologists assigned samples of macroinvertebrates or fish to the six tiers. Thirty-three macroinvertebrate biologists concurred in 81% of their 54 assignments. Eleven fish biologists concurred in 74% of their 58 assignments. These results support our contention that the BCG represents aspects of biological condition common to existing assessment methods. We believe the model is consistent with ecological theory and will provide a means to make more consistent, ecologically relevant interpretations of the response of aquatic biota to stressors and to better communicate this information to the public.

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