For ecosystem-based management (EBM) to be successful, science is needed to understand the natural system, social system, and governance system – as well as how each one interacts with the others. EBM, at its core, is policy based on scientific evidence and knowledge. The more robust the evidence and knowledge, the more robust the policy can be.

Science is not the only consideration in EBM decision-making, though. Politics can play a significant role, as do social values. These factors shape EBM decisions, and it is up to all parties to determine the right balance for all these considerations.

Below, MEAM asks practitioners and stakeholders for their insights on finding that balance between science and other factors, including in cases in which scientific knowledge may be unavailable or insufficient. This continues our coverage of the role of science in EBM, which began with our previous issue, MEAM 4:1. (In that issue, practitioners described how science was incorporated in EBM processes on which they worked, including on the Great Barrier Reef, European seas, and elsewhere.)

A. Mixing Western science and management with traditional knowledge and management

Shankar Aswani
University of California at Santa Barbara, US. E-mail:

(Editor's note: Shankar Aswani, an anthropologist, leads a project to establish a network of community-based MPAs in the Solomon Islands in the southwestern Pacific. The network is managed under customary sea tenure and now includes more than 30 MPAs covering 6000 hectares.)

MEAM: What are the benefits and limitations of Western marine and social science in the marine planning context of the Solomons?

Shankar Aswani: Over the last decade I have used various integrated methodological approaches for studying customary management (CM) for the purpose of designing hybrid CM-MPA (and now CM-EBM) systems in the Solomon Islands. The research has involved over one hundred months of cumulative fieldwork by me and my team members between 1992 and 2010. These human-ecological studies have used a combination of ethnographic, geographic, economic, and marine science research methods. We have delineated the dynamics of common-property institutions and various facets of indigenous ecological knowledge and associated resource exploitation strategies.

The hybrid management systems we designed have resulted in comprehensive conservation and management programs that – while not always successful socially and biologically – are better tailored to the local context. In regions like Oceania where local stakeholders retain a large measure of control over their natural resources, hybrid programs that operate at local scales are likely to be more successful than top-down, state-sponsored management plans.

The limitation of Western science, generally speaking, is that it is rarely understood in non-literate societies and hence can be alienating. Our aim has been to create hybrid forms of knowledge and management to establish a more inclusive approach to conservation.

MEAM: What are the benefits and limitations of traditional ecological knowledge?

Aswani: I lump traditional ecological knowledge with sea tenure to call it customary management. In places where forms of customary management already exist and are functional, the question becomes: Why should foreign systems of management, like EBM, be implemented?

From a hybrid management perspective, while the origins of Western resource management and customary management are different, their conceptual and operational principles can intersect in some ways. This is particularly the case with approaches such as EBM, and this creates an opportunity for their cross-fertilization. The objective, therefore, is to work with existing frameworks and not to replace them. It really boils down to an issue of practicality. Government- or NGO-sponsored management plans tend to focus on protecting biodiversity and ecosystem function, which, while they are important for sustaining and fostering ecological services, are not a major concern in many Pacific Island nations. Furthermore, local governments and stakeholders are not too receptive to government-sanctioned schemes that disregard local governance institutions and practices – particularly members of customary management systems that are still prevalent in many parts of Oceania. So really, there are not too many alternatives besides finding a hybrid solution.

B. If we invoke the precautionary approach whenever we have less than full certainty, then we will be invoking it all the time

Michael Nussman
President and CEO, American Sportfishing Association, Alexandria, Virginia, US. E-mail:

(Editor's note: The American Sportfishing Association is the trade association for the US recreational fishing community.)

MEAM: What roles would you like to see science play in oceans management?

Michael Nussman: As a country, the US has invested far too few resources in understanding ocean and coastal science. At the American Sportfishing Association, we are focused on fishery science where many marine species that are important to the recreational community (anglers and industry alike) lack timely stock assessment. How in the world can we have successful fishery management (or ocean management in general) without the basic science?

Back in 1950, my industry realized that government by itself was unlikely to fund sufficient fishery science to ensure proper management. We supported the establishment of an excise tax on rods and reels (10 percent) that was collected by the Federal government and used for fishery management. In 1984, recognizing the increasing need, we expanded the tax to cover almost all recreational fishing products. Today this tax collects over $100 million each year for fishery management. Unfortunately, it has not been enough and much more needs to done especially in Federal waters.

MEAM: What role do you think the precautionary principle should play in cases of scientific uncertainty?

Nussman: We would all like a world with more certainty, whether it's in decisions regarding ocean resources or in the allocations for our retirement savings accounts. Unfortunately, there never seem to be enough good data, and thus we deal with uncertainty in many of our decisions. With that as a given, I think the US Ocean Policy Task Force [on whose recommendations the new US ocean policy is based] got it right when it defined the precautionary approach: that is, "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." While I'm not a scientist, several terms from the definition stand out to me, specifically "lack of full scientific certainty" and "cost-effective measures".

If I remember my philosophy of science course from many years ago, I believe it was Karl Popper who asserted that scientific theories cannot be verified but only refuted. While that may be overly simplistic, there is a broad agreement that science is not a series of facts that can be known with "full scientific certainty". If we invoke the precautionary approach whenever we have less than full certainty, then we will be invoking it all the time.

My understanding of current scholarly work in environmental policy is that instead of attempting the impossible task of removing all scientific uncertainty, the role of science is to help bound possible solutions. But as the Task Force's report reminds us when it refers to "cost effective measures", other factors are also critical in bounding policy solutions. Integrating science-based knowledge with economics, values, and societal goals is at the heart of the ecosystem services framework that has been embraced by scientists and policy makers alike.

C. Balancing protection and development requires negotiation

Kurt Derbyshire
Principal Fisheries Resource Officer (Marine Habitat), Fisheries Queensland, Australia. E-mail:

(Editor's note: Kurt Derbyshire assists in the management of Queensland's declared Fish Habitat Areas, a system of multiple-use MPAs that protect natural fish habitats from alteration and degradation related to development.)

MEAM: How do you balance ecological science with other considerations in planning and managing the system of declared Fish Habitat Areas (FHAs)?

Kurt Derbyshire: As a starting point, we are required to balance ecology with social and economic factors by the legislation under which we declare and manage FHAs – the Queensland Fisheries Act 1994 and Fisheries Regulation 2008, which are based on the principles of ecologically sustainable development (ESD). The Act outlines what the principles of ESD are and what must be balanced, including use of the precautionary principle.

The key objective is to protect fish habitats (the term can be considered as the equivalent to 'wetlands') from the threats and impacts of coastal development. Part of the determination of draft boundaries for an Area of Interest Plan (used in the first round of consultation) includes a review of existing development and proposed development to avoid inclusion of such activities. This also sets boundaries for where such development can occur (i.e., outside the area that is finally declared). The process of balancing protection of fish habitats and the needs – perceived or real – for future development includes direct negotiation with local and state government agencies responsible for promoting development. A key consideration for the local community is that fishing remains as a legitimate activity within each FHA.

BOX: In Europe, a "huge step forward in science" for EBM

Two developments in Europe are helping to strengthen the scientific groundwork for implementing EBM:

  • A new report, Science dimensions of an Ecosystem Approach to Management of Biotic Ocean Resources (SEAMBOR), offers independent scientific input to current EU policy-making on the marine environment, such as the European Commission's new Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The Directive aims to achieve "Good Environmental Status" of all European seas by 2020. The SEAMBOR report – produced by a working group of three regional marine science organizations (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea [ICES], the European Fisheries and Aquaculture Research Organisation, and the Marine Board of the European Science Foundation) – identifies knowledge gaps in understanding ecosystems, human impacts, management effectiveness, and more. Then it offers a workplan for improving the science base. The report is at
  • A series of reports on defining and managing descriptors of Good Environmental Status for marine waters – from biological diversity, to food webs, to seafloor integrity, and more – has been produced through a joint effort of ICES and the EU Joint Research Centre. The reports are

Jake Rice, chair of the SEAMBOR working group, says these two developments represent major progress for the field. "Together, these mark a huge step forward in the science basis for integrated approaches to marine ecosystem management," he says.