In the two years that MEAM has been published, the most common questions from readers have related to terminology. Namely readers have wondered about the distinctions between ecosystem-based management and other resource management terms that have gained favor at different times in various places – like ecosystem approach to management, or integrated coastal management. A Google search of these terms will yield multiple definitions for each, with enough overlap to blur the distinctions.

MEAM has avoided assigning specific definitions for these terms, partly out of recognition that there is room for reasonable debate on them. We would rather focus on how to implement better management than argue over which term, or whose definition, is best. Nonetheless, communicating the concept of EBM remains a serious challenge for practitioners. Confusion about terms and what they mean can lead to public misconceptions on the intent of management, and obstacles to implementation (see the article “Countering common misconceptions about EBM and marine spatial planning” in this issue).

Practitioners and communications experts are facing the challenge of describing EBM to its different audiences. MEAM asked some of them how it can best be done.

EBM as the new paradigm/buzzword

“EBM is the new paradigm that donors, governments, and practitioners are using,” says Alan White of The Nature Conservancy. White has advised and implemented coastal and marine resource management programs in Southeast Asia for the past three decades, including in the Philippines and Indonesia. He is now co-leading a project to implement EBM in the Coral Triangle region ( In the 1990s, integrated coastal management (ICM) was the main management buzzword in Southeast Asia, and it remains familiar to many coastal communities there. Now EBM is the goal.

“For the most part, the importance of whether it is ICM or EBM, or a combination thereof, is lost on local stakeholders and communities,” says White. “In my experience in the Philippines, because communities and the government have endorsed an ICM approach to their coastal areas through legislation and action, they tend to see EBM as a refinement but not a replacement for their ICM framework. In contrast, other areas where there was no particular coastal and marine resource management framework in place may adopt a so-called EBM system for their needs without pause.”

White himself sees significant overlap and complementation between ICM and EBM, with the main distinction being that ICM has more of an emphasis on institutional integration while EBM has more of an emphasis on ecosystem considerations. White calls that a simplistic separation and acknowledges that academic theory on management would likely draw finer distinctions.

“In the real world of coastal management, though, the perception of stakeholders and local managers is the bottom line, and their view of the world determines if management gains are to be achieved,” he says. “Thus, whether it is ICM or EBM or some other management framework is not the main point. First learn what is already being accepted and implemented, then decide how to improve that. If you introduce your system in a manner that complements and augments current approaches, it will have a greater influence than if it is promoted as the ultimate new solution.”

Should you avoid the term “EBM”?

At the International Marine Conservation Congress this past May, a journalist on a panel of media professionals suggested that resource managers should avoid using the term “EBM” all together when talking to the public. He said such jargon would cause more confusion than clarity. Instead, he suggested, managers should use terms that would mean more to the average person, such as “comprehensive management”.

SeaWeb – an NGO that uses strategic communications to advance science-based solutions to ocean issues – conducted a study from 2006-2008 that reached the same conclusion. Its research on how best to communicate EBM recommended that managers not tie themselves to the term, and instead use alternative descriptors that would resonate with different audiences. In its report Talking about a Sea Change, SeaWeb concluded,

“With some exceptions, audiences such as coastal residents, ocean industry workers, fishers, and elected officials are less familiar with ecosystem-based management and may be confused by the term or interpret it incorrectly. To avoid these potential traps, you may want to avoid saying ‘ecosystem-based management’ at first (and especially avoid using ‘EBM’ as shorthand) and focus on other words that were found to resonate with these audiences. Our research showed that the best alternative words were ‘integrated’, ‘comprehensive’, ‘effective’, ‘holistic’, and ‘balanced’.”

The study draws on in-depth interviews with scientists, NGOs, management agencies, and ocean industries, as well as a US nationwide poll of 1500 adults. It describes tailored strategies and messages for communicating EBM to each of nine groups, from commercial fishermen to resource managers. SeaWeb hopes that although the research was US-based, it could apply to situations elsewhere, providing value to NGOs and international bodies. SeaWeb operates a website on EBM communications at

Shared resources, but different languages and cultures

Marine ecosystems often cross national boundaries. As a result, EBM can require international management of resources. Obstacles to communicating EBM within one country can be magnified when communication is necessary across multiple nations, languages, and cultures.

The EU-funded BALANCE project, active from 2005-2007, aimed to develop joint methods and tools for marine spatial planning and management through the Baltic Sea region. The Baltic region consists of nine countries – Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Sweden – each with a different language and culture. Jan Ekebom of the Finnish Environment Institute said of the communication and coordination issues involved, “If marine spatial planning can be done in the Baltic, it can be done anywhere.”

The BALANCE project ( involved a broad alliance of partners from nearly all nine countries, including conservation agencies, fisheries agencies, geological institutions, scientists, and NGOs. Åsa Andersson of WWF-Sweden, who led the project’s work on MPA networks, says communication on the project had to be in English in light of the language barriers. Although this meant communicating in a language that was foreign to everyone, it also presented all partners with an equal challenge, which was a good thing overall, says Andersson.

“The language challenges were just something that had to be taken into account, such as when developing time plans or writing reports, since it takes a bit longer when using a language that is not your own,” says Andersson. “It was also important to meet face to face every now and then, and not communicate only via telephone and e-mail, to avoid misunderstandings.”

The countries’ different histories and cultures also meant that there were various levels of awareness of environmental conditions, and of EBM and marine spatial planning as management strategies. In addition, there were different priorities, expectations, and reasons for joining the project. “One way of dealing with the different priorities and expectations was to define, as early and as clearly as possible, the expected outcomes of the project, what had to be delivered by each partner, and the absolute deadlines for delivery,” says Andersson.

It was critical to set ambitious but realistic expectations, she says. “One of the main objectives of the project was to compile coherent maps of basic information such as sediment, salinity, light, and bathymetry covering the entire sea area,” says Andersson. “This might sound simple, but because of the challenges of being nine countries – with nine different languages and 19 sediment classifications, for example – this was a great achievement and something to be proud of. Having these maps for the region now is a great step forward and crucial for future planning and management of our joint sea.”

For more information:

Alan White, The Nature Conservancy, Honolulu, Hawai`i, US. E-mail:

Daria Siciliano (director of science), SeaWeb, San Francisco, California, US. E-mail:

Åsa Andersson, WWF, Solna, Sweden. E-mail:

BOX: Describing ecosystem-based management

“Ecosystem-based management is a balanced approach to managing the ocean and its coasts that aims to restore and protect the ocean’s functions – including the ocean’s provision of things that humans want and need – by improving ocean health. Ecosystem-based management is a shift toward long-term perspectives that places humans as integral to ecosystems and a move beyond current management plans that have jurisdictional limits, offer short-term perspectives and consider humans independent of nature.”

– From Talking about a Sea Change (2009, SeaWeb). To order a free PDF copy, e-mail SeaWeb’s EBM Communications Associate Alex Danoff at