By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email:

Equity is an omnipresent goal in managing human affairs. But there are many different kinds of equity, and what one person sees as equitable may be very different from what someone else sees as equitable. One of the types of equity conservationists like to focus on is ‘intergenerational equity’, meaning that marine management has a responsibility to ensure that today’s uses of the ocean do not limit future generations from using the oceans or deriving value from them.

This focus on intergenerational equity has led to a drive to limit extractive industries in the marine environment – most particularly fishing and oil and gas development – because these extractive activities can undermine ecosystem function, threaten biodiversity, and cause ecological imbalances. Of particular concern are points of no return: extinction of species, extirpation of fish populations, and ecological phase shifts between alternative stable states.

Recovering from such tipping points is nearly impossible, or when possible, prohibitively expensive. To avoid these points of no return, EBM has focused on indicators to signal when such irreversible thresholds are being approached. But with limited resources to monitor indicators, sometimes planners and managers just focus on constraining extractive industries – where and when extractive uses can be undertaken – to keep ecosystems safe for future generations. However, keeping ecosystems “safe” is not all that goes into the intergenerational equity argument: in addition to securing healthy, productive, and diverse marine ecosystems in the future, people need to have access to them for the system to be equitable.

Are large scale exclusions for conservation fair?

This is where, in my opinion, conservationists have sometimes deviated from fairness. The push to label extractive industries as evil, simply because, when poorly managed, these uses have indeed caused irreversible changes, has meant that many users are denied access even if they intend to use the oceans sustainably. In effect, one value system is upheld over others: conservation trumps human needs.

Take for example the push to establish large no-take MPAs to create biological safe havens for marine species. While no-take areas are undoubtedly a necessity for the preservation of marine ecosystems and biodiversity, the wholesale exclusion of certain users from wide geographic areas – often without any consultation with affected parties – is not an equitable solution. These designations can constrain local communities, handicap businesses, and create hostility toward conservation. This is particularly true when the MPA only addresses the threat of overfishing or minerals development and does nothing to address what may be even more pressing issues of marine pollution and cumulative impacts.

Equity in management requires consideration of all ocean uses

The burgeoning human population will need to look to the sea ever more frequently to meet its food, energy, and livelihood needs. Given such demands, true equity in management will only occur when all uses and all value systems are taken into consideration and all destructive or degrading activities are stopped (including the wholesale destruction of coastal habitats for tourism development, the poisoning of coastal waters from pollution, and the suite of unregulated activities that occur on the high seas). People’s use rights and the basis for their sense of stewardship cannot be eclipsed by a conservationist agenda that strives to stop ocean use. For instance, calls by some in the conservation community for people to stop eating fish altogether is impractical, and could be argued to be unfair. Not only does a significant proportion of the global population depend on fisheries for food security, but an even greater number depend on fisheries for livelihoods. Long-lasting sustainability will only be likely if priority is given to promoting stewardship over banning use.

If we are committed to intergenerational equity, we need to guide management so that ecosystem function is preserved, points of no return are avoided, and all uses that occur are at sustainable levels. Taking the easy way out by excluding a subset of uses and patting ourselves on the back without implementing true integrated management that considers all pressures on the ecosystem is not equitable, nor is it EBM.