As demands on aquatic resources increase, there is a growing need to monitor and assess their condition. This paper reviews a variety of aquatic environmental assessments, at local, national, international and global scales and finds confusion in the terminology used to describe assessments. In particular the terms ‘ecosystem’ and ‘integrated’ are often misused resulting in lack of clarity. Therefore, definitions of some assessment terminology are suggested, consolidating existing proposals and simplifying future applications. A conclusion from the review is that a new classification system is required. The categorisation system proposed builds on preliminary work of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Assessment classification is based on the environmental components considered, methodologies and nature of the linkages between components, and the inclusion or exclusion of socio-economic factors. The assessment terminology and categorisation system provided could in future simplify the way that assessments are defined and used to inform development of management strategies.