Use of a Phytoplankton Community Index to assess the health of coastal waters

P. Tett, C. Carreira, D. K. Mills, S. Van Leeuwen, J. Foden, E. Bresnan, R. J. Gowen

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63 Citations (Scopus)


Monitoring of marine-ecosystem status and health requires indicators of community structure and function. As a structural indicator, we propose a Phytoplankton Community Index (PCI) based on the abundance of "life-forms" such as "pelagic diatoms" or "medium-sized autotrophic dinoflagellates". To calculate the PCI, data showing seasonal variation in these abundances are plotted in "life-form space" of two or more dimensions. Data from a "type-specific reference condition" are then enclosed within a reference envelope. Comparison data are plotted into the same coordinate system, and the PCI is the proportion (between 0 and 1) of these new data that fall within the reference envelope. Results from initial applications of this method are shown for UK coastal waters in the northern North Sea (near Stonehaven), a Scottish fjord (Loch Creran), and the eastern Irish Sea (including Liverpool Bay). The Stonehaven data (1997-2005) were used to compare values obtained from weekly sampling with those from monthly sampling. A spatial comparison between more- and less-nutrient-enriched waters in the eastern Irish Sea (1991-2003) showed little difference in phytoplankton community structure. Loch Creran has experienced a large change in the "balance of organisms", and hence a reduction in the PCI, between 1979-1981 and 2006/2007, associated with a decrease in chlorophyll but no apparent change in nutrients. These results are discussed in relation to the intended uses of the PCI as an index of biological quality for the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and an index of ecosystem health in the context of eutrophication. Although the method only measures change, it can also be used as an indicator of biological quality if the reference conditions are those defined for a WFD waterbody, and as an indicator of health if appropriately calibrated. Suggestions are made for further development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1475-1482
Number of pages8
JournalICES Journal of Marine Science
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 10 Sept 2008


  • Irish Sea
  • Life-forms
  • Loch Creran
  • Nutrients
  • PCI
  • Phytoplankton
  • Stonehaven


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