1. The ability of many introduced fish species to thrive in degraded aquatic habitats and their potential to impact on aquatic ecosystem structure and function suggest that introduced fish may represent both a symptom and a cause of decline in river health and the integrity of native aquatic communities.
2. The varying sensitivities of many commonly introduced fish species to degraded stream conditions, the mechanism and reason for their introduction and the differential susceptibility of local stream habitats to invasion because of the environmental and biological characteristics of the receiving water body, are all confounding factors that may obscure the interpretation of patterns of introduced fish species distribution and abundance and therefore their reliability as indicators of river health.
3. In the present study, we address the question of whether alien fish (i.e. those species introduced from other countries) are a reliable indicator of the health of streams and rivers in south-eastern Queensland, Australia. We examine the relationships of alien fish species distributions and indices of abundance and biomass with the natural environmental features, the biotic characteristics of the local native fish assemblages and indicators of anthropogenic disturbance at a large number of sites subject to varying sources and intensities of human impact.
4. Alien fish species were found to be widespread and often abundant in south-eastern Queensland rivers and streams, and the five species collected were considered to be relatively tolerant to river degradation, making them good candidate indicators of river health. Variation in alien species indices was unrelated to the size of the study sites, the sampling effort expended or natural environmental gradients. The biological resistance of the native fish fauna was not concluded to be an important factor mediating invasion success by alien species. Variation in alien fish indices was, however, strongly related to indicators of disturbance intensity describing local in-stream habitat and riparian degradation, water quality and surrounding land use, particularly the amount of urban development in the catchment.
5. Potential confounding factors that may influence the likelihood of introduction and successful establishment of an alien species and the implications of these factors for river bioassessment are discussed. We conclude that the potentially strong impact that many alien fish species can have on the biological integrity of natural aquatic ecosystems, together with their potential to be used as an initial basis to find out other forms of human disturbance impacts, suggest that some alien species (particularly species from the family Poeciliidae) can represent a reliable ‘first cut’ indicator of river health.