Diversity indices are commonly used to measure changes in marine benthic communities. However, the reliability (and therefore suitability) of these indices for detecting environmental change is often unclear because of small sample size and the inappropriate choice of communities for analysis. This study explored uncertainties in taxonomic density and two indices of community structure in our target region, Japan, and in two local areas within this region, and explored potential solutions. Our analysis of the Japanese regional dataset showed a decrease in family density and a dominance of a few species as sediment conditions become degraded. Local case studies showed that species density is affected by sediment degradation at sites where multiple communities coexist. However, two indices of community structure could become insensitive because of masking by community variability, and small sample size sometimes caused misleading or inaccurate estimates of these indices. We conclude that species density is a sensitive indicator of change in marine benthic communities, and emphasise that indices of community structure should only be used when the community structure of the target community is distinguishable from other coexisting communities and there is sufficient sample size.