Environmental Management

, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 499–515 | Cite as

Sensitivity of Indices of Biotic Integrity to Simulated Fish Assemblage Changes

  • Anett S. Trebitz
  • Brian H. Hill
  • Frank H. McCormick
Environmental Assessment


Multimetric indices of biotic integrity (IBIs) are commonly used to assess condition of stream fish assemblages, but their ability to monitor trends within streams over time is largely unknown. We assessed the trend detection ability of two IBI formulations (one with traditional scoring and metrics, and one with nontraditional scoring and region-specific metrics) and of similarity and diversity indices using simulations that progressively altered the fish assemblages of 39 streams in the United States mid-Atlantic Highlands region. We also assessed responses to simulated 50% variability in fish abundances, as a measure of background “noise.” Fish assemblage indices responded little to changes that affected all species proportionally despite substantial changes in total fish number. Assemblage indices responded better to scenarios that differentially affected fish species, either according to life history traits or by increasing dominance of already common species, but even these changes took some time to detect relative to background variability levels. Ordinations of stream fish assemblage data suggested that differences among sites were maintained even after substantial alterations of fish composition within sites. IBIs are designed to detect broad assemblage differences among sites while downplaying abundance changes and variability increases that were the first indications of within-site changes, and they appear more suited to detecting large departures from natural fish assemblages than for monitoring gradual changes such as those our simulations produced. Inferences about causes of assemblage changes should be made with caution because of correlations among species traits and interdependence among IBI component metrics. Site trend assessments should be made based on all available data rather than just by summary indices.


Index of biotic integrity Fish assemblages Streams Trend monitoring 



We thank the many people who conducted field sampling and provided species identification, database management, and statistical support for the EMAP project. Thanks to John Brazner for many conversations about fish assemblage assessment and reviewing several versions of the manuscript. Valerie Brady and Jack Kelly also provided constructive reviews, as did journal editors and reviewers. This research was supported directly by the US Environmental Protection Agency and by a postgraduate fellowship to A.T. funded by EPA through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. This manuscript has been reviewed by EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory and approved for publication, although approval does not signify that the contents reflect the views of the agency.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York, Inc. 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anett S. Trebitz
    • 1
  • Brian H. Hill
    • 1
  • Frank H. McCormick
    • 2
  1. 1.Mid-Continent Ecology DivisionU.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 6201 Congdon Boulevard, Duluth, Minnesota 55804USA
  2. 2.Ecological Exposure Research DivisionU.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 26 W. Martin Luther King Dr., Cincinnati, Ohio 45268USA

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