Establishing ecologically-relevant nutrient thresholds: A tool-kit with guidance on its use



Kelly MG, Phillips G, Teixeira H, Várbíró G, Herrero FS, Willby NJ & Poikane S (2022) Establishing ecologically-relevant nutrient thresholds: A tool-kit with guidance on its use. Science of the Total Environment, 807 (Part 3), Art. No.: 150977.

One key component of any eutrophication management strategy is establishment of realistic thresholds above which negative impacts become significant and provision of ecosystem services is threatened. This paper introduces a toolkit of statistical approaches with which such thresholds can be set, explaining their rationale and situations under which each is effective. All methods assume a causal relationship between nutrients and biota, but we also recognise that nutrients rarely act in isolation. Many of the simpler methods have limited applicability when other stressors are present. Where relationships between nutrients and biota are strong, regression is recommended. Regression relationships can be extended to include additional stressors or variables responsible for variation between water bodies. However, when the relationship between nutrients and biota is weaker, categorical approaches are recommended. Of these, binomial regression and an approach based on classification mismatch are most effective although both will underestimate threshold concentrations if a second stressor is present. Whilst approaches such as changepoint analysis are not particularly useful for meeting the specific needs of EU legislation, other multivariate approaches (e.g. decision trees) may have a role to play. When other stressors are present quantile regression allows thresholds to be established which set limits above which nutrients are likely to influence the biota, irrespective of other pressures. The statistical methods in the toolkit may be useful as part of a management strategy, but more sophisticated approaches, often generating thresholds appropriate to individual water bodies rather than to broadly defined “types”, are likely to be necessary too. The importance of understanding underlying ecological processes as well as correct selection and application of methods is emphasised, along with the need to consider local regulatory and decision-making systems, and the ease with which outcomes can be communicated to non-technical audiences.

Nutrients; Water Framework Directive; Standards; Aquatic ecosystems; Nitrogen; Phosphorus

Science of the Total Environment: Volume 807, Issue Part 3

Publication date28/02/2022
Publication date online31/10/2021
Date accepted by journal10/10/2021

People (1)


Professor Nigel Willby
Professor Nigel Willby

Professor & Associate Dean of Research, Biological and Environmental Sciences