Assessment and management of ecological integrity: Chapter 12

By:  and 


  • The Publications Warehouse does not have links to digital versions of this publication at this time
  • Download citation as: RIS | Dublin Core


Assessing and understanding the impacts of human activities on aquatic ecosystems has long been a focus of ecologists, water resources managers, and fisheries scientists. While traditional fisheries management focused on single-species approaches to enhance fish stocks, there is a growing emphasis on management approaches at community and ecosystem levels. Of course, as fisheries managers shift their attention from narrow (e.g., populations) to broad organizational scales (e.g., communities or ecosystems), ecological processes and management objectives become more complex. At the community level, fisheries managers may strive for a fish assemblage that is complex, persistent, and resilient to disturbance. Aquatic ecosystem level objectives may focus on management for habitat quality and ecological processes, such as nutrient dynamics, productivity, or trophic interactions, but a long-term goal of ecosystem management may be to maintain ecological integrity. However, human users and social, economic, and political demands of fisheries management often result in a reduction of ecological integrity in managed systems, and this conflict presents a principal challenge for the modern fisheries manager.

The concepts of biotic integrity and ecological integrity are being applied in fisheries science, natural resource management, and environmental legislation, but explicit definitions of these terms are elusive. Biotic integrity of an ecosystem may be defined as the capability of supporting and maintaining an integrated, adaptive community of organisms having a species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to that of a natural habitat of the region (Karr and Dudley 1981). Following that, ecological integrity is the summation of chemical, physical, and biological integrity. Thus, the concept of ecological integrity extends beyond fish and represents a holistic approach for ecosystem management that is especially applicable to aquatic systems. The more general term, ecological condition, refers to the state of the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the environment and the processes and interactions that connect them. While the concept of ecological integrity may appear unambiguous, its assessment and practice are much less clear.

Ecological integrity made its debut in the USA with the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 (Federal Water Pollution Control Act, as amended through Public Law 107–303, November 27, 2002), which states only one objective, “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” This legislation compelled resource managers to focus on chemical pollution from point effluent sources, such as industrial and municipal outflows, as well as give attention to diffuse, chronic, and watershed effects on ecological integrity. Further, the CWA allowed pursuit of restoration programs in degraded water bodies and catalyzed the science and practice of restoration ecology.

The term ecosystem health is often raised in discussions of ecological integrity. Perhaps it is natural to anthropomorphize our concern for personal health to ecosystems, so it becomes a useful metaphor for understanding the concept of ecological integrity. However, whether or not an ecosystem should be considered an entity, such as a superorganism, is a debate without end that began with early ecologists and continues today (Clements 1916; Suter 1993; Simon 1999a). Regardless, the ecosystem is indeed a natural unit with a level of organization and properties beyond the collection of those species that occupy it and presents the most appropriate spatial and organizational scale in which to assess and study ecological integrity. Streams and rivers serve as integrators of chemical, physical, and biological conditions across the landscape, and while the theory and practice associated with ecological integrity of aquatic systems is easily applied to flowing waters and is emphasized in this chapter, they are broadly applicable among all aquatic systems.

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Assessment and management of ecological integrity: Chapter 12
Edition 3
Year Published 2010
Language English
Publisher American Fisheries Society
Publisher location Bethesda, MD
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Atlanta
Description 42 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Monograph
Larger Work Title Inland fisheries management in North America
First page 353
Last page 394
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details