‘Ecological status’ is a core concept of the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Many papers have been published throughout Europe describing methods for assessing ecological status by comparing observed assemblages with those expected under unimpacted conditions. However, the quantitative rigour necessary to develop these methods has been achieved by reducing complex community structure to simple metrics. One of the costs associated with this is the loss of higher level understanding of community structure which otherwise may have informed data interpretation. It also pushes the debate about ecological status further into the realm of abstract scientific ideas and away from engagement with stakeholders, another core concept of the WFD. These matters are particularly acute for microscopic organisms such as the algae, which play a key role in freshwater ecosystem functioning but are little known beyond a narrow group of specialists. Examples of phytobenthos communities from streams and rivers in the UK are used to show how visual representation can inform both peer-to-peer debate within the scientific community and communication with non-technical stakeholders.
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