Protocols for bioassessment often relate changes in summary metrics that describe aspects of biotic assemblage structure and function to environmental stress. Biotic assessment using multimetric indices now forms the basis for setting regulatory standards for stream quality and a range of other goals related to water resource management in the USA and elsewhere. Biotic metrics are typically interpreted with reference to the expected natural state to evaluate whether a site is degraded. It is critical that natural variation in biotic metrics along environmental gradients is adequately accounted for, in order to quantify human disturbance-induced change. A common approach used in the IBI is to examine scatter plots of variation in a given metric along a single stream size surrogate and a fit a line (drawn by eye) to form the upper bound, and hence define the maximum likely value of a given metric in a site of a given environmental characteristic (termed the 'maximum species richness line' - MSRL). In this paper we examine whether the use of a single environmental descriptor and the MSRL is appropriate for defining the reference condition for a biotic metric (fish species richness) and for detecting human disturbance gradients in rivers of south-eastern Queensland, Australia. We compare the accuracy and precision of the MSRL approach based on single environmental predictors, with three regression-based prediction methods (Simple Linear Regression, Generalised Linear Modelling and Regression Tree modelling) that use (either singly or in combination) a set of landscape and local scale environmental variables as predictors of species richness. We compared the frequency of classification errors from each method against set biocriteria and contrast the ability of each method to accurately reflect human disturbance gradients at a large set of test sites. The results of this study suggest that the MSRL based upon variation in a single environmental descriptor could not accurately predict species richness at minimally disturbed sites when compared with SLR's based on equivalent environmental variables. Regression-based modelling incorporating multiple environmental variables as predictors more accurately explained natural variation in species richness than did simple models using single environmental predictors. Prediction error arising from the MSRL was substantially higher than for the regression methods and led to an increased frequency of Type I errors (incorrectly classing a site as disturbed). We suggest that problems with the MSRL arise from the inherent scoring procedure used and that it is limited to predicting variation in the dependent variable along a single environmental gradient.