When MEAM published an article four years ago that complimented Namibia on its marine EBM efforts – including new protected areas, a regional ecosystem management project, and an emerging coastal policy (MEAM 3:1) – we received a letter from a frustrated reader. “How can you suggest Namibia is practicing ecosystem-based management when that country conducts one of the largest seal hunts in the world?” the person wrote.

It was a fair question. Namibia’s seal hunt, or cull, involves the clubbing of 80,000 pups and 6000 bull seals each year, with the fur, meat, and other body parts sold to an international dealer. It is decried by animal rights organizations as brutal, and the EU banned the import of seal products in 2009, partly in response to Namibia’s hunt. However, the Namibian government views the cull as sustainable (the nation’s fur seal population is 1.2 million seals) and a prudent ecosystem-based measure. That is, the government blames the seals for competing with Namibian fishermen for fish; so by reducing the seal population, the competition for fish is lessened and the ecosystem is in better balance, in the government’s view.

This raises a point that is central to discussions of EBM. Namely, can any and all human activities be considered compatible with EBM as long as they are done in an integrated, sustainable way? Or are some activities simply incompatible with the concept of ecosystem-based management?

The question applies to more than seal hunts. As industry continues to develop new uses for and access to the resources of the ocean, resource managers must determine how those new (often extractive) uses fit within EBM – if they do. Mining of seafloor minerals in the deep sea is one example of such a use. So is exploration and drilling for oil in previously ice-covered Arctic marine ecosystems.

MEAM asked three people for their views on the compatibility or incompatibility of various human activities with marine EBM:

Sidney Holt – fisheries scientist based in Italy, who was active for many years in FAO and the International Whaling Commission and is now involved in the revision of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy;

Alf Håkon Hoel – research director for the Institute of Marine Research (Tromsø, Norway) and editor of Best Practices in Ecosystems Based Oceans Management in the Arctic (www.sdwg.org/media.php?mid=1017); and

Steven Yaffee – professor of natural resource policy at the University of Michigan, and co-developer of the “Marine Ecosystem-Based Management in Practice” website (www.snre.umich.edu/ecomgt/mebm).

Below are our questions, citing real-world examples, followed by the experts’ responses. The responses indicate the range of definitions of EBM. Some also bring out the element of personal and societal values, which can be embedded in the choice of definition.

Question 1: There are several resource management programs worldwide – including in Namibia, Canada, the US, and elsewhere – in which marine mammal populations are being culled for the express purpose of allowing more fish to be caught by fishermen. In your opinion, is marine mammal culling compatible with the concept of ecosystem-based management?

Sidney Holt: Not that I am aware. This does not mean that such culling could not be compatible in principle, and under some rigorous conditions. But I know of no practical real examples. I understand your use of the word “culling” to mean something akin to “pruning” a fruit tree or “cleaning up” a piece of woodland – done for their own sakes or to enhance human sustainable (and so limited) use. However, all marine mammal culling I have experienced, in reality or as proposals, has been directed either to justify exploitation without much concern for sustainable use (except to pay lip service to it), or to claim that the cull is “saving the mammals'” food, especially fishes. In the case of whaling by Japan, this has led to the Japanese authorities publishing the spurious results of much lethal “research”, and absurdities such as labeling all the krill, amphipods and copepods the whales eat as “fish”.

Alf Håkon Hoel: There is no culling of marine mammals in Norway, but there is a commercial hunt [of seals and whales]. Commercial hunting is a better option, as it provides healthy and tasty food, which is an important ecosystem service to humans.

Steven Yaffee: At one level, ecosystem-based management is a process of analysis and collaborative decision-making that does not absolutely preclude any specific use. Hence, there may be scenarios where a science-based and interest-inclusive process of assessment may find ways that management of a marine mammal population may be possible and socially acceptable. In the extreme case of clubbing seals, however, ethical issues are raised for which an EBM process can only provide a platform for discussion of what is ultimately a values-based choice. Depending on the situation, the process may or may not be able to reconcile competing perspectives.

As a process, EBM also elevates the importance of maintaining or restoring ecosystem health or integrity. In this light, managing marine mammal populations to promote fisheries production may be theoretically possible but practically very unlikely, even leaving aside ethical issues. It is hard to find many places where marine mammal populations are overstocked, and given dynamic predator-prey relationships and the longevity of marine mammals, I find it hard to imagine the circumstances under which a culling program could be justified under an EBM regime.

Question 2: In 2012, New Caledonia indicated its intent to designate a 1-million km2, multi-use MPA and said that it would potentially permit the “sustainable” mining of minerals within that MPA (mpanews.org/MPA128.htm). Other nations have also indicated their intent to start seabed mining. Are there scenarios in which deep seabed mining of minerals could be considered compatible with EBM?

Holt: Mining of some minerals that lie on the seabed, such as so-called manganese nodules being “scraped up”, would perhaps not be too disruptive and polluting. However, methane hydrates (now being exploited, still on a small scale, by Japanese operators for fuel) are extremely dangerous to the ocean and indeed the planet. Inevitable “spills” of methane will add to global warming problems arising from the potent greenhouse gas methane itself and the additional carbon dioxide generated by burning it.

Hoel: It depends. The critical issue is whether the activity can take place in areas where ecosystems do not have a high degree of vulnerability and can be carried out without emissions of toxic substances in the marine environment.

Yaffee: There are scenarios where deep seabed mining could be consistent with EBM. However, those scenarios are unlikely in an established marine protected area since most reserves have been established due to conditions or resources that required avoidance of such disruptions.

The seabed mining scenario, in particular, demonstrates how context- and place-specific the answers to your questions would be, since there are places where well-managed mining is possible. At its core, EBM is a process that involves engaging science and scientists, managers and management choices, and affected and concerned interests in a process that incorporates a rich understanding of ecosystems and ecosystem processes and the implications of alternative patterns of use. The objective of EBM is not to preclude use but rather to assure that key ecosystem processes and components are maintained or restored while allowing appropriate levels of use. Without achieving that bottom line, there is no ability to sustain use.

Question 3: Several nations are moving forward on exploring and drilling for petroleum in formerly ice-bound Arctic waters. Are there scenarios in which oil exploration and drilling in Arctic waters could be considered compatible with EBM?

Holt: Firstly, “ecosystem-based management”, while being a very ambiguous term, is at least always considered to be about sustainability. Oil exploration and drilling are, by definition, about unsustainable use: the oil is a nonrenewable resource.

The mineral resources sought are not, I consider, actually in the marine ecosystems. It is the drilling and extraction process, and movement of the product and the wastes from the operations, that are within the marine environment and that affect that environment. Without any doubt those processes damage or seriously risk damage to the living ecosystems. Hence these processes are incompatible with EBM. But much worse, the use to which the products are put, particularly their combustion, is contrary to the aims of EBM because the end products eventually enter the marine sphere and cause damaging acidification (highly corrosive to the most abundant planktonic animals – the shelled mollusk pteropods – that form the most important animal bases of the marine food networks) as well as other kinds of pollution. All experience so far tells us that this extraction and transport process is inevitably accompanied by high risk or unintended consequences – deleterious consequences without exception. The technological (and human error) problems are so high that it is unreasonable to assume that they can be reduced, by care or regulation, to low and negligible risk.

Hoel: Again, it depends. If operations can be carried out in areas with low levels of vulnerability and with low levels of risk, yes. EBM does not exclude commercial activities, but stipulates that it is carried out in ways that do not harm ecosystems.

Yaffee: The precautionary principle applied to an assessment of the risks of this activity makes it hard to imagine conditions where it may proceed while still maintaining ecosystem health. While one could argue that the adaptive management component of EBM might allow experimentation with various activities, those that would take place in systems with slow response and recovery are particularly questionable. In this case, drilling in the unforgiving waters of the Arctic is not likely to be an appropriate use given risks of long-impact spills and other less risky ways to secure energy.

For more information:

Sidney Holt, Paciano, Umbria, Italy. Email: sidneyholt@mac.com

Alf Håkon Hoel, Institute of Marine Research, Tromsø, Norway. Email: alf.haakon.hoel@imr.no

Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, US. Email: yaffee@umich.edu

BOX: Additional resources examining the ecosystem-based implications of various ocean uses

Arctic oil exploration/drilling

“Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Effects of Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic Ocean”
Released by NOAA and US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in March 2013. This document analyzes how potential offshore oil and gas activities in the Arctic could affect marine mammals, other resources, and Alaska Native communities. Open for public comment until 27 June 2013. www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/eis/arctic.htm

Deep sea mining

“International Workshop on Environmental Management Needs for Exploration and Exploitation of Deep Seabed Minerals”
Held in 2011 in Fiji, and organized by the International Seabed Authority and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community. www.isa.org.jm/en/scientific/workshops/2011

Seal culling to boost targeted fish populations

“2011-2015 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Atlantic Seals”
Released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Governs the hunt of seal populations in Atlantic Canada. www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/seal-phoque/reports-rapports/mgtplan-planges20112015/mgtplan-planges20112015-eng.htm

Open Letter: “Independent Marine Scientists Respond to Senate Fisheries Committee Report ‘The Sustainable Management of Grey Seal Populations: A Path Toward the Recovery of Cod and Other Groundfish Stocks'”
Released by marine scientists at Dalhousie University in Atlantic Canada.