In recent years, several sets of legislation worldwide (Oceans Act in USA, Australia or Canada; Water Framework Directive or Marine Strategy in Europe, National Water Act in South Africa, etc.) have been developed in order to address ecological quality or integrity, within estuarine and coastal systems. Most such legislation seeks to define quality in an integrative way, by using several biological elements, together with physico-chemical and pollution elements. Such an approach allows assessment of ecological status at the ecosystem level (‘ecosystem approach’ or ‘holistic approach’ methodologies), rather than at species level (e.g. mussel biomonitoring or Mussel Watch) or just at chemical level (i.e. quality objectives) alone.
Increasing attention has been paid to the development of tools for different physico-chemical or biological (phytoplankton, zooplankton, benthos, algae, phanerogams, fishes) elements of the ecosystems. However, few methodologies integrate all the elements into a single evaluation of a water body. The need for such integrative tools to assess ecosystem quality is very important, both from a scientific and stakeholder point of view. Politicians and managers need information from simple and pragmatic, but scientifically sound methodologies, in order to show to society the evolution of a zone (estuary, coastal area, etc.), taking into account human pressures or recovery processes.
These approaches include: (i) multidisciplinarity, inherent in the teams involved in their implementation; (ii) integration of biotic and abiotic factors; (iii) accurate and validated methods in determining ecological integrity; and (iv) adequate indicators to follow the evolution of the monitored ecosystems.
While some countries increasingly use the establishment of marine parks to conserve marine biodiversity and ecological integrity, there is awareness (e.g. in Australia) that conservation and management of marine ecosystems cannot be restricted to Marine Protected Areas but must include areas outside such reserves.
This contribution reviews the current situation of integrative ecological assessment worldwide, by presenting several examples from each of the continents: Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.