Predictive assessment of fish health and fish kills in the Neuse River Estuary using elicited expert judgment


Declining fish health and the occurrence of large fish kills are some of the more publicly meaningful indicators of water quality in the impaired Neuse River Estuary, North Carolina. It is generally believed that such problems are caused by the widespread depletion of dissolved oxygen - an indirect result of anthropogenic nutrient pollution. However, the development of scientific simulation models to predict how improvements in oxygen conditions will improve the health of fish and reduce the frequency of fish kills has proven elusive. As a pragmatic solution to this problem, the expert opinion of estuarine fisheries scientists in possession of relevant data and experience was elicited. The relations between joint and conditional probabilities were exploited to translate quantities that are normally hard to assess into quantities that can be drawn more directly from the experiential knowledge of the experts. A combined model of expert opinion was constructed as an influence diagram, and Monte Carlo simulation was used to generate predictions of fish health and fish kills in the Neuse River Estuary under current and improved oxygen conditions. Full model results are expressed as probability distributions, capturing the effects of natural variability and knowledge uncertainty - both contributors to total ecological risk.