Aquatic ecosystems can be chronically stressed by multiple environmental factors which originate from a variety of point and non-point sources. In addition, these stressors may vary both spatially and temporally, and, combined with synergestic and cumulative interactions of these stressors, complicate the interpretation and evaluation of stress responses in organisms. To help identify and differentiate between sources of anthropogenic stressors in aquatic systems, a diagnostic approach based on exposure-response profiles in sentinel organisms was developed from the known effects of various anthropogenic activities on biological systems. To generate these exposure-effects profiles, biomarkers of exposure were plotted against bioindicators of corresponding effects for several major anthropogenic activities including petrochemical, pulp and paper, domestic sewage, mining operations, land-development, and agricultural activities. Biomarkers of exposure to environmental stressors varied widely depending on the type of anthropogenic activity involved. Bioindicator effects, however, including histopathological lesions, bioenergetic status, growth, reproductive impairment, and community-level endpoints were similar among several of the major anthropogenic activities because responses at these higher levels are less specific to stressors than are biomarkers. This approach appears useful for helping to identify and diagnose sources of stress in environments impacted by multiple stressors. By identifying the types and sources of environmental stressors impacting key components of biological systems, aquatic ecosystems can be more effectively protected, regulated, and managed to help improve and maintain environmental quality and ecosystem fitness.
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