Surveying toxicity of complex geochemical media as aquatic sediments often yields results that are either difficult to interpret or even contradictory to acknowledged theory. Multi-level biomarkers were investigated in a benthic fish exposed to estuarine sediments through laboratory and in situ bioassays, to evaluate their employment either in ecological risk assessment or in more mechanistic approaches to assess sediment-bound toxicity. Biomarkers reflecting lesions (such as genotoxicity or histopathology), regardless of their low or absent specificity to contaminants, are efficient in segregating exposure to contaminated from uncontaminated sediments even when classical biomarkers like CYP1A and metallothionein induction are inconclusive. Conversely, proteomics and gene transcription analyses provided information on the mechanics of toxicity and aided explaining response variation as a function of metabolic imbalance and impairment of defences against insult. In situ bioassays, although less expedite and more affected by confounding factors, produced data better correlated to overall sediment contamination.