By Vera N. Agostini
Scientist, Global Marine Initiative, The Nature Conservancy, Seattle, U.S. E-mail:

A plethora of conservation tools are often invoked to address the escalating crisis in marine ecosystems. Each one comes with its own acronym, group of supporters promoting it, and suite of donor-designed benchmarks to assess the implementation progress. This often creates confusion amongst stakeholders and practitioners as well as diversion of and competition for existing resources. At the end of the day we all have a job to do: design and implement conservation strategies that will be effective in working seascapes. Not a simple task, regardless of your favorite acronym.

Ecosystem-based management and marine protected areas are two such tools on the table. The genesis of each can be traced back to a specific point in time and need (or opportunity). Sadly the two camps are more divided than one would hope for, despite the clear synergies between the two. Taking advantage of an "opportunity stream" for one tool to accomplish agendas for the other tool has too often come at the expense of effective demonstration and leveraging of links between tools. Energy, skill, and capacity devoted to each tool could instead be harnessed into a larger, more-effective whole. A lot could be gained from this "marriage".

The Bird's Head Seascape (BHS) is an excellent demonstration of the power of this marriage. Located on the northwest coast of West Papua (Eastern Indonesia), BHS is the center of the Coral Triangle, the most biodiverse region in the world. A system of MPAs has been established to protect this incredible biodiversity. A wide range of monitoring, education and outreach activities (largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation) have made the MPA network an accepted tool on the ground to achieve conservation in BHS while maintaining the livelihoods of local people. The area is also increasingly becoming the target for development of a wide variety of economic sectors (e.g., fisheries, energy extraction, tourism). As a result, local governments in this region are facing difficult decisions in their attempt to balance sustainable development of an incredibly rich array of marine resources with conservation of globally significant marine diversity. The growing range of diverse objectives within the seascape as well as the obvious existing ecological, governance, and human connections have made the adoption of an Ecosystem-Based Approach to Management an increasing priority and focus for the BHS. The need to embed this within the existing MPA discourse has been apparent.

The Bird's Head has had a history of activities, funded largely within the framework of the Packard Foundation's Bird's Head EBM initiative, effectively documenting important ecosystem components. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Conservation International (CI), and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have been working in partnership with local stakeholders to explore and describe the ecological, socioeconomic, and governmental processes that are most important to understand and include in management decisions in the Bird's Head. Based on the results of these studies, TNC, CI, and WWF are in the process of assisting local and provincial governments to develop environmentally sound development policies. The existing MPA network and related activities are at the core of these policies with multi-use zoning emerging as a central piece. Effectively demonstrating the links between EBM and MPAs – and leveraging existing buy-in on the ground for MPAs to address use issues both inside and outside the protected areas – will clearly be a powerful avenue for the adoption of EBM in the Bird's Head ecosystem.

EBM is about (a) perceiving the big picture; (b) recognizing and maintaining connections between habitats, biodiversity, and people; and (c) addressing the multiple needs and desires of people. The process underway to zone the existing MPA network in the BHS is an excellent way to address all of the above and get one step closer to effective EBM implementation. At a minimum it will bring a diverse group of players to the table. Achieving this in the BHS is the product of wise pooling of resources and capacity both amongst organizations as well as the MPA and EBM opportunity streams. A great deal can be learned from this marriage.

BOX: Thinking beyond individual MPAs

MEAM's sister newsletter MPA News reported on the large-scale Bird's Head Seascape initiative in its October 2006 issue. The article quoted Mark Erdmann, who represents Conservation International on the multi-institutional implementation team. Erdmann addressed the role of MPAs in the Bird's Head Initiative:

"Each of our organizations has come to the realization that in order to deal most effectively with the global threats of overfishing and biodiversity loss in the oceans, we must not only work much more closely together as conservation partners, but also scale up our approach to tackle large-scale marine conservation. This entails thinking beyond the 'traditional' approach of setting up individual MPAs. Rather, it is about designing full networks of MPAs based on a broader EBM concept. That concept explicitly acknowledges oceanographic and genetic connectivity between MPAs and the important role of ecosystem-level processes that operate at a scale much broader than individual MPAs. By doing this, we also explicitly acknowledge the need for marine management tools that extend beyond 'just' MPAs, including policies to protect watersheds and regulate fisheries in non-MPA areas."