By Mike Beck

[Editor’s note: Beck is a senior scientist with The Nature Conservancy in Santa Cruz, California, U.S. E-mail:]

Many countries are moving toward more ecosystem-based management of fisheries. These programs vary somewhat in name and approach, but I will refer to them broadly as EBFM for this essay. These EBFM programs are beginning to lead to advances in the way that the fisheries sector is managed and studied and could be an important step toward the more multi-sector management that is at the heart of ecosystem-based management (EBM).

Fishery managers should be encouraged in their moves toward EBFM while also being clear that this represents potential reforms in only one sector or objective, fishery management (“FM”). Two of the main issues that have motivated fishery managers to think more broadly (in an ecosystem-based, or “EB”, way) are (i) the increasing recognition of the connections between different fish species and stocks, which have been managed individually (and usually in decline) and (ii) the impacts to fisheries from decisions made in other management sectors. The first issue can be addressed directly by fishery managers. The addition of EB to FM is leading toward real shifts away from just single-species or stock management to multi-species management including the trophic interactions among species. These improvements in fisheries management should benefit fisheries and could create greater flexibility for the joint management of resources in other sectors.

The second issue – multi-sector impacts and opportunities – is more difficult and can only be addressed indirectly by fishery managers because the decisions are primarily outside of their authority. EBFM is about fisheries management and it is led by agencies and managers whose primary (and usually sole) mandate has been to sustain or increase the catch of fish. Under EBFM, fishery management decisions can be influenced by examination of their impacts on other sectors or resources. This consideration of other sectors by fishery managers is an important step toward future opportunities to jointly manage these issues across sectors. But the converse of influencing management decisions in other sectors (e.g., agriculture, conservation, and energy) based on their impacts to fisheries is much more challenging to fishery managers, because they do not have authority over these other sectors.

This second issue is exactly where EBFM, single-sector management, falls short of EBM, multi-sector management. A driving force for the development of EBM has been the recognition that there are now many overlapping and conflicting uses in the marine environment. Sector-specific management has led to fractured governance systems that are insufficient to meet these challenges. This fractured marine governance was a core problem identified for the U.S. by the recent Commission on Ocean Policy (, and it is a common problem in most countries (finding working examples of marine multi-sector management are the oddities). Improvements in management in individual sectors are necessary but often not sufficient to address current governance shortcomings.

The improvements and shortcomings of EBFM are being mirrored in other management sectors, including conservation. For example, many conservation programs (public and private) are doing a better job of understanding fishery management objectives in their planning and implementation. This involvement runs the gamut from certification programs to working directly with fishermen on new approaches to harvesting. But these programs fall short of explicitly and jointly meeting fishery management objectives, because such management is outside their purview. There are some real advances being made in cooperation across sectors toward jointly meeting objectives (as well as some hyperbole about relatively minor advances in communication across sectors). In the U.S., for example, fishery management plans are increasingly being developed with real input from conservation scientists, although there is still room for improvement. In the south Pacific, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community is developing an ecosystem approach to fisheries management with conservation groups at the table.

The painful truth is that managing for multiple objectives, even just two, is difficult and in the marine environment we have less direct experience with it than in the terrestrial environment. Nonetheless, we are making real progress in getting toward the ideals of EBM: full and joint consideration of multiple management objectives in a common framework.