The purpose of this study was to evaluate the overall sensitivity and applicability of a number of bioassays representing multiple trophic levels, for the preliminary ecotoxicological screening (Tier I) of estuarine sediments. Chemical analyses were conducted on sediments from all sampling sites to assist in interpreting results. As sediment is an inherently complex, heterogeneous geological matrix, the toxicity associated with different exposure routes (solid, porewater and elutriate phases) was also assessed. A stimulatory response was detected following exposure of some sediment phases to both the Microtox and algal bioassays. Of the bioassays and endpoints employed in this study, the algal test was the most responsive to both elutriates and porewaters. Salinity controls, which corresponded to the salinity of the neat porewater samples, were found to have significant effects on the growth of the algae. To our knowledge, this is the first report of the inclusion of a salinity control in algal toxicity tests, the results of which emphasise the importance of incorporating appropriate controls in experimental design. While differential responses were observed, the site characterised as the most polluted on the basis of chemical analysis was consistently ranked the most toxic with all test species and all test phases. In terms of identifying appropriate Tier I screening tests for sediments, this study demonstrated both the Microtox and algal bioassays to be more sensitive than the bacterial enzyme assays and the invertebrate lethality assay employing Artemia salina. The findings of this study highlight that salinity effects and geophysical properties need to be taken into account when interpreting the results of the bioassays.