Chapter 12: Assessment and Management of Ecological Integrity
Thomas J. Kwak and Mary C. Freeman
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.