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Research Group on Ecology of Inland Waters (GRECO)

Freshwater organisms as biological indicators: algae, invertebrates and fish

Line of research

Permanent researchers: Dani Boix, E. García-Berthou, Stéphanie Gascón, R. Moreno-Amich, Xavier D. Quintana, Anna Romaní, Sergi Sabater, Anna Vila-Gispert, Lluís Zamora

Development of biological indicators in Catalonia

EcoAqua has had strong support role, particularly with the Catalan Water Agency (ACA) but also with the Confederación Hidrográfica del Ebro implementation of the Water Framework Directive, owing to its expertise in continental aquatic ecology and the value attached to its knowledge and previous scientific results.

For instance, we have helped develop typologies for aquatic ecosystems in Catalonia and define and adapt some metrics and indexes in order to evaluate their ecological state.This resulted in the development of several new ecological indicators that are currently used by the ACA. This can be checked in the reports and following protocols (of which several members of the group are the authors):

  • Adjustment to the biotic integrity index (IBICAT) based on the use of fish as indicators of environmental quality in the rivers of Catalonia (year 2010)
  • Feasibility study and proposal on phytobenthic indicators for the quality of water in fluvial courses in Catalonia
  • Evaluation of the ecological state of wetlands and adjustment of quality indicators. QAELS, ECELS and EQAT indexes
  • Characterisation and study proposals for Catalan reservoirs according to Directive 2000/60/CE of the European Parliament
  • Characterisation, regionalisation and elaboration of establishment tools for the ecological state of wetlands in Catalonia

All reports and protocols from these works can be found on the website for the ACA .

Diatoms as biological indicators

The benthic algae community is made up of different taxonomical groups, each one of them with different adaptations and indicator uses. Of these, diatoms represent some 80% of the species found in rivers. Their structural silicon skeleton means the species or variety can be determined with a high degree of accuracy. Its small size and high reproduction rate means that communities of diatoms respond very sensitively and quickly to changes in their environment. Changes take the form of variations in the composition of the species, with the most tolerant faring better under new conditions.

Diatoms are very sensitive to possible variations in the physical and chemical characteristics of the river, making them effective indicators of the ecological state of the river. Moreover, they are cosmopolitan, easy to collect and easy to preserve, factors which offer advantages in their use. The use of these organisms as indicators of the ecological quality of water has some distinguished precedents in Catalonia. Essentially, the professor Ramon Margalef was the initiator of studies using organisms that inhabit fresh waters and continental brackish waters to indicate the “ecological health” of bodies of water. Numerous works were carried out in the 1950s and 1960s, shedding light on small and large bodies of water in Catalonia and many other places in the Spanish state. Notable works include “Organismos Indicadores en la Limnología, a ground-breaking work in the attempt to link organisms with water quality. Since then, information has kept on being added about the organisms that live in our continental aquatic systems, and about their autecology. Moreover, in the European and international context, a more accurate definition has been developed of the tools for extracting more relevant information, such as indexes or complex statistical tools.  

Diatom communities thus offer excellent information on the biological integrity of the ecosystem and any causes of perturbation. To achieve this, it is essential to be able to make the connection between a suitable taxonomy of the species with the geomorphologic, physical and chemical characters that typify the environments they are found in. Only this way will it be possible to determine their optimum values accurately, as well as possible deviations with respect to these.


Publicacions representatives:

Basset A., Barbone E., Borja A., Brucet S., Pinna M., Quintana X.D., Reizopoulou S., Rosati I. & Simbour N. 2012. A benthic macroinvertebrate size spectra index for implementing the Water Framework Directive in coastal lagoons in Mediterranean and Black Sea ecoregions. Ecological Indicators 12: 72-83.

Boix D., Gascón S., Sala J., Martinoy M., Gifre J. & Quintana X.D. 2005. A new index of water quality assessment in Mediterranean wetlands based on crustacean and insect assemblages: the case of Catalunya (NE Iberian peninsula). Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 15: 635-651.

García-Berthou E., Bae M.-J., Benejam L., Alcaraz C., Casals F., Sostoa A. de, Solà C., Munné A. 2015. Fish-based indices in Catalan Rivers: intercalibration and comparison of approaches. in Munné A., Ginebreda A. & Prat N. (eds.) Experiences from Surface Water Quality Monitoring: The EU Water Framework Directive Implementation in the Catalan River Basin District (Part I). Springer International Publishing, Switzerland. In press. doi

Tornés E. & Sabater S. 2015. Use of diatoms to assess the ecological status in Catalan rivers: application of the WFD and lessons learned from the European Intercalibration Exercise. In: Munné A., Ginebreda, A., Prat N. Experiences from surface water quality monitoring: The EU Water Framework Directive Implementation in Catalan River Basin District (Part I), The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, DOI: 10. 1007/698_2015_344

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