Four sampling designs for quantifying the effect of low-head sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) barriers on fish communities were evaluated, and the contribution of process-oriented research to the overall confidence of results obtained was discussed. The designs include: (1) sample barrier streams post-construction; (2) sample barrier and reference streams post-construction; (3) sample barrier streams pre- and post-construction; and (4) sample barrier and reference streams pre- and post-construction. In the statistical literature, the principal basis for comparison of sampling designs is generally the precision achieved by each design. In addition to precision, designs should be compared based on the interpretability of results and on the scale to which the results apply. Using data collected in a broad survey of streams with and without sea lamprey barriers, some of the tradeoffs that occur among precision, scale, and interpretability are illustrated. Although circumstances such as funding and availability of pre-construction data may limit which design can be implemented, a pre/post-construction design including barrier and reference streams provides the most meaningful information for use in barrier management decisions. Where it is not feasible to obtain pre-construction data, a design including reference streams is important to maintain the interpretability of results. Regardless of the design used, process-oriented research provides a framework for interpreting results obtained in broad surveys. As such, information from both extensive surveys and intensive process-oriented research provides the best basis for fishery management actions, and gives researchers and managers the most confidence in the conclusions reached regarding the effects of sea lamprey barriers.