Rationale for a new generation of indicators for coastal waters

Gerald Niemi, Denice Wardrop, Robert Brooks, Susan Anderson, Valerie Brady, Hans Paerl, Chet Rakocinski, Marius Brouwer, Barbara Levinson, Michael McDonald

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

124 Scopus citations


More than half the world's human population lives within 100 km of the coast, and that number is expected to increase by 25% over the next two decades. Consequently, coastal ecosystems are at serious risk. Larger coastal populations and increasing development have led to increased loading of toxic substances, nutrients and pathogens with subsequent algal blooms, hypoxia, beach closures, and damage to coastal fisheries. Recent climate change has led to the rise in sea level with loss of coastal wetlands and saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers. Coastal resources have traditionally been monitored on a stressor-by-stressor basis such as for nutrient loading or dissolved oxygen. To fully measure the complexities of coastal systems, we must develop a new set of ecologic indicators that span the realm of biological organization from genetic markers to entire ecosystems and are broadly applicable across geographic regions while integrating stressor types. We briefly review recent developments in ecologic indicators and emphasize the need for improvements in understanding of stress-response relationships, contributions of multiple stressors, assessments over different spatial and temporal scales, and reference conditions. We provide two examples of ecologic indicators that can improve our understanding of these inherent problems: a) the use of photopigments as indicators of the interactive effects of nutrients and hydrology, and b) biological community approaches that use multiple taxa to detect effects on ecosystem structure and function. These indicators are essential to measure the condition of coastal resources, to diagnose stressors, to communicate change to the public, and ultimately to protect human health and the quality of the coastal environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)979-986
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue number9
StatePublished - Jun 2004


  • Coastal
  • Ecologic
  • Estuarine
  • Health
  • Indicators
  • Marine
  • Nutrients
  • Responses
  • Stressors


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