Assessing and quantifying ecosystem vulnerability is a key issue in site-specific ecotoxicological risk assessment. In this paper, the concept of vulnerability, particularly referred to aquatic ecosystems is defined. Sensitivity to stressors, susceptibility for exposure and recovery capability are described as component of vulnerability of biological communities. The potential for habitat changes must also be considered in ecosystem vulnerability assessment. A procedure based on the application of an ecosystem vulnerability index is proposed. The method allows the assessment of vulnerability of riverine ecosystems to multiple stressors. The procedure is applied to two river systems in northern Italy: River Serio, subject to strong human pressure, and River Trebbia, in semi-natural conditions, as reference system. Macrozoobenthos is chosen as the indicator community. The actual quality of River Serio was evaluated as the result of the multiple stressor pressure on the reference system. Values and limitations of the approach are discussed.
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