Five years ago, 220 scientists from around the world signed a statement calling for marine managers to shift to an ecosystem-based approach. Such an approach would seek to protect “ecosystem structure, functioning and key processes,” recognize the interconnectedness of human and marine systems, and be place-based rather than driven by individual activities. The scientists called this method ecosystem-based management, or EBM. Their statement was seen by some as impossibly lofty, a call to do nothing until everything was known about the ocean. Yet it proved to be a practical prescription, expanding the view of management.

This approach is particularly timely in light of the current rate of global warming. Humans have so altered the planet that we now live among accidental ecosystems, composed of animals and plants lucky enough to survive despite us or to have been deemed useful. Going forward, we need a way to protect the ecological relationships that support the ocean’s services, and we must develop the hubris to believe that if we commit ourselves to that goal we can succeed.

Last July, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and Great Lakes, charging agencies to create a strategic plan for ecosystem-based management. That plan could help create a standard system for implementing EBM across all agencies. The ocean policy also lays out a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning, or CMSP, an approach to make ecosystem-based management tangible in the water. Under this approach, nine regional ocean governance bodies would be created, bringing together state and federal agencies and tribes to develop regional plans stretching from shore out to 200 miles. In essence, CMSP is intended to change the current reactive process for integrating management actions, in which an agency proceeds and consults with other agencies after an action has been initiated, into a proactive process in which planning across agencies is done from the start. Conflicts are identified early on, and the process is more open.

Ecosystem-based management seeks to preserve the resilience of a system so that it can adapt to changing conditions and continue to provide a full set of ecosystem services, such as food production and storm protection, that support human well-being. Its place-based approach has particular relevance in light of climate change, which will shift species and other ecosystem components in time and space. Management boundaries in the United States have traditionally been drawn based on political rather than biological criteria. From the perspective of a fish, moving from nursery grounds to open-ocean feeding can require swimming through multiple state and federal jurisdictions, all in a season’s time. As warmer waters shift the regions important for fish, those fisheries will also shift into new jurisdictions. Conversely, a fishery may disappear because of management decisions made far from where fish are caught: for example, the construction of new seawalls might protect coastal property but destroy a fish’s critical habitat. A focus on system protection, not just species conservation, would shift management from the constraints of traditional regulatory boundaries to safeguarding the underlying biological linkages.

Individual federal agencies have moved to incorporate ecosystem-based management and to account for ecosystem services within their issue areas. Fishery management councils, responding to the 2006 Magnuson Act amendments, are tackling integrated ecosystem assessments for their regions. In some cases, managers have taken precautionary steps to safeguard key ecological components, such as the North Pacific Council’s decision to preemptively ban krill fishing. However, agencies are still challenged to coordinate their decisions so that a designation to protect fishing habitat by one agency is not undermined by the actions of another, such as the siting of an energy facility. As yet, there is no federal mandate to add up the cumulative impacts across agencies and activities. Without a high level of accounting for systems and services, we risk letting ecosystems degrade piece by piece as each decision is made.

Successful marine spatial planning includes clear objectives for ecological and social goals, including economic, recreational, historical, and ceremonial values. It requires a public participation process, an information portal to inform planning, and standards for determining how to apportion uses and evaluate trade-offs. Critically, comprehensive planning requires that we finally bring together the disparate information that each sector collects but doesn’t share. In essence, we finally have a mandate and an opportunity to consider comprehensively what we know about a particular part of the ocean.

The scientific tools for coastal and marine spatial planning are in development. Several efforts tackling trade-offs and siting are already underway, including the Marine InVEST tool at Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, the MIMES project at the University of Vermont and Boston University, and the cumulative impacts tools based at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Decades of ocean monitoring and data are being translated to GIS formats and combined with maps and surveys, so politicians and the public can see what’s under the waves. There is still a need for better understanding of ecosystem dynamics and boundaries as well as information on what, exactly, people value from the sea.

And while Obama’s national ocean policy includes many key elements of good coastal and marine spatial planning, it leaves other questions unanswered, such as how disagreements among agencies will be resolved. How will the precautionary approach, one of the policy’s strategic priorities, be integrated into coastal and marine spatial planning? Without new legal authority, will existing laws be up to the task of supporting spatial plans all the way from development to implementation, from the high tide out to 200 miles from shore? These questions will require our concerted effort and attention, but they are ultimately solvable, and tackling them is preferable to investing in an outdated system of management.

NCSE_logo108x42.gifThis article is in part derived from the 11th Annual National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment: Our Changing Oceans hosted by the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE).


Kate Wing

Kate Wing is a program officer in the Marine Conservation Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. During her eight years with the Natural Resources Defense Council, she focused on the creation...


Barry Gold

Barry Gold is program director for marine conservation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He has advised senior officials in Congress, federal and state agencies, the White House, nongovernmental...


Edward Miles

Edward Miles has recently retired as the Virginia and Prentice Bloedel Professor of Marine Studies and Public Affairs at the University of Washington. His fields of specialization are international science...


Andrew Rosenberg

Andrew Rosenberg is senior vice president for Science + Knowledge at Conservation International. He is also a professor in the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New...

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