Introduction

Estuaries are dynamic environments, formed where rivers enter the sea. These ecosystems are highly productive and support a great variety of plants and animals. The sheltered waters of estuaries are important for many species of invertebrates, fish and birds, as well as a variety of plant communities, including salt marshes and mangroves. The protected coastal waters of estuaries, however, are often ideal sites for human development and are subject to increasing anthropogenic pressures both in the coastal zone and in the rivers that feed these systems.

Being dynamic systems, change is a characteristic of all estuarine environments. Modern ecology has focused on understanding biotic and abiotic processes in natural environments and the identification and separation of natural and anthropogenic-induced pressures on particular ecosystems. Furthermore, growing environmental awareness around the world has led to an increase in demand by water resource managers, for ecological information on which to base management plans and decisions. To this end, monitoring plays a vital role in the management of estuaries, and monitoring programs are used to describe the current status and trends in estuaries, thereby highlighting existing and emerging problems. Monitoring also provides information for designing management and regulatory programs and helps track the effectiveness of management programs. Environmental monitoring provides policy and decision makers with data to aid in prioritizing research and assessment efforts and to assess the extent to which current policies are meeting the desired objectives.

Managers and decision makers, however, often require environmental information in forms that they can easily understand and use. This requires the distillation of the complexities of the environment into simplified forms that are still scientifically valid. One method of evaluating the fundamental condition of the environment without having to capture the full complexity of the system is the use of environmental indicators.

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