Instream Habitat Unit Classifications: Inadequacies for Monitoring and Some Consquences for Management

Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 879-896

Habitat unit classification can be a useful descriptive tool in hierarchical stream classification. However, a critical evaluation reveals that it is applied inappropriately when used to quantify aquatic habitat or channel morphology in an attempt to monitor the response of individual streams to human activities. First, due to the subjectivity of the measure, observer bias seriously compromises repeatability, precision, and transferability of the method. Second, important geomorphic and ecological changes in stream habitats are not always manifested as changes in habitat-unit or frequency or characteristics. Third, classification data are nominal, which can intrinsically limit their amenability to statistical analysis. Finally, using the frequency of specific habitat-unit types (e.g. pool/riffle ration or percent pool) as a response variable for stream monitoring commonly leads to the establishment of management thresholds or targets for habitat-unit types. This, in turn, encourages managers to focus on direct manipulation or replacement of habitat structures while neglecting long-term maintenance or re-establishment of habitat-forming biophysical processes. Stream habitat managers and scientists should only use habitat unit classification to descriptively stratify in-stream conditions. They should not use habitat unit classification as a means of quantifying and monitoring aquatic habitat and channel morphology. Monitoring must instead focus on direct, repeatable, cost-efficient, and quantitative measures of selected physical, chemical, and biological components and processes spanning several scales of resolution.


Poole , G.C. , Frissell , C.A. , Ralph , S.C.