Ecosystem-based management can be described relatively simply. It is an approach that uses ecosystem science – our knowledge of the connections among living organisms, natural phenomena, and human activities – to guide our uses of the ocean and coast. By doing so, we can ensure that those uses are sustainable and beneficial to society.

The processes for how to bring EBM to fruition, however, can be tricky. When conducted in a comprehensive manner, EBM can require ocean management to coordinate its work across sectors and agencies – some of which may be comfortably entrenched in sector-by-sector management. Furthermore, to ensure sustainability of the ocean, marine managers must begin to account for factors above the high tide line, including the impacts of land-based runoff and other terrestrial impacts on the marine environment.

Although the benefits of EBM for ecosystems and humans are increasingly apparent, the management changes necessary to achieve comprehensive EBM can appear substantial. As a result, the concept of EBM still seems complex and intimidating to a great number of ocean resource managers – as if they are standing at the start of a long journey. But the journey becomes less intimidating once the first steps are taken and benefits start to accrue. In addition, some elements of EBM may already be employed in current management in some cases, giving practitioners a head start.

MEAM asked several experts for advice to help managers on the path toward full EBM. Specifically we posed the question:

What are some small, feasible steps that resource managers can take that will make an immediate, noticeable difference in making management more ecosystem-based?

The answers from the EBM experts follow:

Take a walk through your watershed

By Lisa Lurie
Agriculture water quality coordinator, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, US. E-mail:

Take a walk through your watershed. As professional resource managers, we sometimes find ourselves immersed in a single issue or single sector to the point of losing sight of the bigger picture. We often sense the disconnection, but feel unable to make the shift to a more holistic, ecosystem-based approach. The more we are able to make tangible connections to the watersheds and ecosystems in which we live, the more likely we are to translate that perspective into our professional lives.

By simply walking through a watershed you gain an appreciation for the diversity of land uses and the complexities of ecosystems. And while you are at it, talk to your neighbors and to the people up- and downstream. EBM is as much about community management as it is about resource management. The more we are able to talk with and listen to the diverse people within a watershed, the better we will be at working with diverse interests and finding commonalities to manage resources in a more integrated way.

[Editor's note: Lurie's work to address the effects of upstream agricultural runoff on the coastal Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was featured in our August-September 2009 issue (MEAM 3:1).]

Build on what we already have – don't throw it out

By Alf Håkon Hoel
Editor of Best Practices in Ecosystems Based Oceans Management in the Arctic. E-mail:

It is important to realize that ecosystem-based oceans management is an ongoing process, not an end state. It has to build on existing knowledge and management structures and develop these further. It is not about throwing out what we have and replacing it with something else. Rather, the point is to bring ecosystem perspectives to bear on science as well as management.

An initial key issue is to get an understanding of the cumulative impact on ecosystems from economic activities (fishing, petroleum development, tourism, transportation, etc.) on the one hand, and environmental change (climate, long-range pollution) on the other. The understanding of ecosystems and the total pressures on them is the starting point. A second issue is identifying areas of special concern, where important biological processes of high value to the whole ecosystem (e.g., spawning grounds for fish) take place. Such areas may warrant special management action.

As to management, it is critical to establish on-going monitoring programs to follow the status of ecosystems. There is a distinction between ecosystem-based oceans management (which is viewed from a systems perspective) and the management of fisheries or other sectors (which are viewed from an economic perspective). These perspectives can be mutually reinforcing, provided appropriate coordination mechanisms are developed. The design and operation of such mechanisms will depend upon the nature of the political systems.

Harness the self-interest of each sector to achieve better integration

By Jake Rice
Senior national advisor for ecosystem sciences with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. E-mail:

The question asks for small, feasible steps that move toward a greater ecosystem context for fisheries management practices and greater integration of management across sectors. The former is much easier than the latter.

There are many domestic and international commitments that already require fisheries managers to place management in a broader ecosystem context. The FAO International Plans of Action on seabirds and sharks bring bycatch impacts on biodiversity into the picture. UN General Assembly Resolution 61/106 brings benthic habitat impacts onto managers' plates. Science advice on mitigation measures to make progress on all these types of commitments is readily available. The advice is incomplete (in that not all places and fisheries that require mitigation measures may be specifiable with existing information), but priorities for action can be identified, and those actions are small, feasible first steps.

Fortunately, many of the most suitable measures will be place-based ones, and those open the much stickier door to more integrated decision-making. (By "place-based measures", I am referring to spatially targeted fishery closures, allocation of space among fleet sectors, and other fishery-focused measures.) As soon as fisheries management starts to include place-based measures, both the managers and the industry participants get very concerned about what other activities are allowed to proceed, both in the (even slightly) more limited areas where they are still allowed to operate and the (even fewer) areas where their operations are much more stringently regulated. They become very concerned that the ecological benefits expected from their self-restraint could be dissipated by other industry sectors' activities.

Although their reasons are selfish, an appropriate mix of industry sectors will ultimately end up at the table with managers, discussing what suite of conservation measures and opportunities to operate will allow them to coexist, and to see benefits of the conservation actions they take on (willingly or not). Once that dialogue starts, it is up to those most committed to the integration to show that coordinated planning and decision-making can allow sustainability for all – sustainability in an ecological, economic, and social sense. If that is happening, then management is becoming integrated in all the ways that matter, even if some new form of "integrated governance" never does come to pass.

Identify ecosystem values

By Stacy Jupiter
Director, South Pacific Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, Fiji. E-mail:

  1. Identify ecosystem values. Implementation of EBM calls for an understanding of the interactions between the biological and social systems in the management area. Biological and socioeconomic assessments can provide key indicators of ecosystem functions and the management needs of the people. When there are limited resources for new scientific assessments, integrating local knowledge with existing and emerging scientific knowledge may improve management effectiveness by increasing community participation.
  2. Identify and involve stakeholders. Effective EBM requires identification of the full range of stakeholders and strategic decisions about engaging stakeholders in the process of change. Collaborative partnerships greatly enhance management effectiveness by bringing together organizations with diverse expertise, roles, and resources.
  3. Understand the management context. Because resource tenure is a fundamental issue for conservation and natural resource management initiatives in many areas of the world, it is important to gain a clear understanding of the legal and de facto status of tenure claims in the management area. Gaining a clear understanding of customary and government decision-making processes can greatly enhance the effectiveness of EBM initiatives.

Use maps of human activities to focus EBM on where it is most needed

By Erik Olsen
Head, research program on oil and fish, Institute of Marine Research, Norway. E-mail:

  1. Making an assessment of the extent of all human activities is a first, simple, and achievable step that only requires access to statistics of each individual sector. If the data also can be mapped, managers get a first impression of where the human footprint on the ecosystem is highest, and where there are potential overlaps between sectors and potential for conflicts. This allows the managers to narrow the process of implementing EBM to the key issues or areas where the need is highest.
  2. The steps to achieve ecosystem-based management have been described in many publications, and many of these are concrete and well-known actions that also are cornerstones in sustainable single-species or single-sector management. Limiting fishing capacity (i.e., number of vessels or amount of gear) and reducing (or banning) habitat destructive fishing practices like the use of explosives, poison, or active fishing gear on coral reefs are all actions that have positive effects on the whole ecosystem. They may be costly from a socioeconomic perspective, but they are well-known and can easily be enforced.

EBM does not create new complexity; it exposes complexity that was previously ignored

By Kevern Cochrane
Chief, Fisheries Management and Conservation Service, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Italy. E-mail:

The harsh reality is that we cannot afford not to do ecosystem-based management, and we had better start straight away with whatever resources and knowledge we have. From the perspective of fisheries, the starting point is to assemble all the knowledge currently available on the status, trends, and drivers (natural and human) of the fishery and the ecosystem in which it operates. This can be done through scientific reviews, stakeholder consultations, and public meetings. With that information and by working with stakeholders, managers should clarify the objectives for the fishery/fisheries and, expanding from single-sector approaches, the objectives of other stakeholders also using the ecosystem that interact with fisheries.

This does not create complexity. Rather, it makes explicit the underlying complexity that has always been there but has often been ignored. Then follows the consultative process of prioritizing the objectives, and reconciling any intra-sectoral and inter-sectoral conflicts between them. Once the top priority objectives are agreed, the final step is to consider, again with all stakeholders, any changes and additions to the current management measures needed to achieve them.

Involve stakeholders throughout management

By Marion Howard
MPA advisor to CORALINA, the Colombian regional institution that manages the natural resources and sustainable development of Colombia's San Andrés Archipelago, including the 65,000-km2 Seaflower Marine Protected Area. E-mail:

In the Seaflower MPA, we prioritized EBM principles to address hindrances to marine conservation. Based on our experience, we recommend that managers could feasibly move forward by:

  1. Identifying with stakeholders the major drivers of ecosystem degradation and their root causes, including sociocultural, economic, environmental, and governmental factors;
  2. Decentralizing management to the level legally possible and involving people who have traditionally lived off the resources – such as by training and employing locals to serve as managers, scientists, educators, etc.;
  3. Emphasizing participation of the full range of stakeholders in planning, management, and evaluation, including legitimizing their participation through advisory committees or co-management structures;
  4. Incorporating scientific, technical, and indigenous knowledge into management (e.g., bringing resource users and scientists together in ongoing activities of research, monitoring, enforcement, and education); and
  5. Working with stakeholders to define zones to achieve a proper balance between conservation and use, and managing some of the zones for sustainable use and others to conserve ecosystem structure and functioning.