SUMMARY 1. In Europe, water policy is currently undergoing considerable change as emphasised by the recent European Water Framework Directive (WFD), which requires the restoration and maintenance of ‘healthy’ aquatic ecosystems by the assessment of their hydromorphological, chemical and biological characteristics. If the requirements of the WFD are to be met, effective biological tools are needed to measure the ‘health’ of rivers at scales large enough to be useful for management. These tools need to be ecologically based, efficient, rapid and applicable in different ecological regions. Among potential indicators, fish assemblages are of particular interest because of their ability to integrate environmental variability at different spatial scales. To meet the goals of the WFD, the French Water Agencies and the Ministry of the Environment initiated a research programme to develop a fish-based index that would be applicable nationwide.
2. A variety of metrics based on occurrence and abundance data and reflecting different aspects of the fish assemblage structure and function were selected from available literature and for their potential to indicate degradation.
3. Logistic and multiple linear regression procedures were applied, using an initial data set of 650 reference sites fairly evenly distributed across French rivers and defined by some easily measured regional and local characteristics, to elaborate the simplest possible response model that adequately explained the observed patterns of each metric for a given site.
4. Models obtained for each metric were validated using two independent data sets of 88 reference sites and 88 disturbed sites. These procedures allowed us to select the most effective metrics in discriminating between reference and disturbed sites.