The spatial and temporal variability of potentially harmful phytoplankton was examined in the oyster-growing estuaries of New South Wales. Forty-five taxa from 31 estuaries were identified from 2005 to 2009. Harmful species richness was latitudinally graded for rivers, with increasing number of taxa southward. There were significant differences (within an estuary) in harmful species abundance and richness for 11 of 21 estuaries tested. Where differences were observed, these were predominately due to species belonging to the Pseudo-nitzschia delicatissima group, Dinophysis acuminata, Dictyocha octonaria and Prorocentrum cordatum with a consistent upstream versus downstream pattern emerging. Temporal (seasonal or interannual) patterns in harmful phytoplankton within and among estuaries were highly variable. Examination of harmful phytoplankton in relation to recognised estuary disturbance measures revealed species abundance correlated to estuary modification levels and flushing time, with modified, slow flushing estuaries having higher abundance. Harmful species richness correlated with bioregion, estuary modification levels and estuary class, with southern, unmodified lakes demonstrating greater species density. Predicting how these risk taxa and risk zones may change with further estuary disturbance and projected climate warming will require more focused, smaller scale studies aimed at a deeper understanding of species-specific ecology and bloom mechanisms. Coupled with this consideration, there is an imperative for further taxonomic, ecological and toxicological investigations into poorly understood taxa (e.g. Pseudo-nitzschia).