Ecosystem-based management

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Ecosystem-based management is an environmental management approach that recognizes the full array of interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, rather than considering single issues, species, or ecosystem services in isolation (Christensen et al. 1996, McLeod et al. 2005).

Terrestrial ecosystem-based management (often referred to as ecosystem management) came into its own during the conflicts over endangered species protection (particularly the northern spotted owl), land conservation, and water, grazing and timber rights in the western United States in the 1980s and 1990s (Yaffee 1999).

Interest in ecosystem-based management in the marine realm has developed more recently, in response to increasing recognition of the declining state of fisheries and ocean ecosystems (POC 2003, USCOP 2004, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).


The systemic origins of ecosystem-based management are rooted in the ecosystem management policy applied to the Great Lakes of North America in the late 1970s. The legislation created, the "Great Lakes Basin and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978", was based on the claim that "no park is an island", with the purpose to show how strict protection of the area is not the best method for preservation (Slocombe 1998b). This type of management system was however an idea that began long before and evolved through the testing and challenging of common ecosystem management practices.

Before its complete synthesis, the management system's historical development can be traced back to the 1930s. During this time, the scientific communities who studied ecology realized that current approaches to the management of national parks did not provide effective protection of the species within. In 1932, The Ecological Society of America's Committee for the Study of Plant and Animal Communities recognized that US national parks needed to protect all the ecosystems contained within the park in order to create an inclusive and fully functioning sanctuary, and be prepared to handle natural fluctuations in its ecology. Also the committee explained the importance for interagency cooperation and improved public education, as well as challenged the idea that proper park management would "improve" nature (Grumbine 1994). These ideas became the foundation of modern ecosystem-based management.

As the understanding of how to manage ecosystems shifted, new tenets of the management system were produced. Biologists George Wright and Ben Thompson accounted for the size and boundary limitations of parks and contributed to the re-structuring of how park lines were drawn. They explained how large mammals for example could not be supported within the restricted zones of a national park and in order to protect these animals and their ecosystems a new approach would be needed (Wright and Thomson 1935). Other scientists followed suit, but none were successful in establishing a well-defined ecosystem-based management approach.

In 1979, the importance of ecosystem-based management resurfaced in ecology from two biologists: John and Frank Craighead. The Craigheads found that grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park could not sustain a population if only allowed to live within park boundaries. This reinforced the idea that a broader definition of what defines an ecosystem needed to be created, suggesting that it be based on the biotic requirements of the largest mammal present (Grumbine 1994).

The idea of ecosystem-based management began to catch on and projects throughout American National Parks reflected the idea of protecting an ecosystem in its entirety and not based on legal or ecological restrictions as previously used. Jim Agee and Darryll Johnson published a book-length report on managing ecosystems in 1988 explaining the theoretical framework management. While they did not fully embrace ecosystem-based management by still calling for "ecologically defined boundaries", they stated the importance of "clearly stated management goals, interagency cooperation, monitoring of management results, and leadership at the national policy levels" (Grumbine 1994). Most importantly they demanded the recognition of human influence. It was argued that scientists must keep in mind the "complex social context of their work" and always be moving towards "socially desirable conditions" (Grumbine 1994). This need to understand the social aspects of scientific management is the fundamental step from ecological management to ecosystem-based management. Although it continues to become recognized, a debate over ecosystem-based management continues. Grumbine (1994) believes, while the approach has evolved, it has not been fully incorporated into management practices because the most effective forms of it have yet to be seen. He articulates that the current ecological climate calls for the most holistic approach of ecological management. This is in part due to the rapid decline in biodiversity and because of the constant state of flux in societal and political views of nature. Conflicts over public interest and understanding of the natural world have created social and political climates that require interagency cooperation, which stands as a backbone for ecosystem-based management.


Because ecosystem-based management is applied to large, diverse areas encompassing an array of interactions between species, ecosystem components, and humans, it is often perceived as a complex process that is difficult to implement. In addition, uncertainty is common and predictions are difficult (Slocombe 1998b). However, in light of significant ecosystem degradation, there is a need for a holistic approach that combines environmental knowledge and co-ordination with governing agencies to initiate, sustain and enforce habitat and species protection, and include public education and involvement. As a result, ecosystem-based management will likely be increasingly used in the future as a form of environmental management. Some suggestions for implementing ecosystem-based management and what the process may involve are as follows:

Goals and objectives[edit]

Defining clear and concise goals for ecosystem-based management is one of the most important steps in effective ecosystem-based management implementation. Goals must move beyond science-based or science-defined objectives to include social and cultural importance. Experts also call for the creation of "suites" of goals. A single, end-all goal cannot be the solution, but instead a combination of goals and their relationships with each other should be the focus (Slocombe 1998a).

As discussed by Slocombe (1998a), goals should be broadly applicable, measurable and readily observable, and ideally be collectively supported in order to be achievable. The idea is to provide direction for both thinking and action and should try to minimize managing ecosystems in a static state. Goals should also be flexible enough to incorporate a measure of uncertainty and be able to evolve as conditions and knowledge change. This may involve focusing on specific threatening processes, such as habitat loss or introduced invasive species, occurring within an ecosystem. Overall the goals should be integrative, to include the structure, organization and processes of the management of an area. Correct ecosystem-based management should be based in goals that are both "substantive", to explain the aims and importance of protecting an area, and "procedural", to explain how substantive goals will be met.

As described by Tallis et al. (2010), some steps of ecosystem-based management may include:


This step involves the acquisition of data and knowledge from various sources in order to provide a thorough understanding of critical ecosystem components. Sources may include literature, informal sources such as aboriginal residents, resource users, and/or environmental experts. Data may also be gained through statistical analyses, simulation models, or conceptual models.

Defining indicators

Ecological indicators are useful for tracking or monitoring an ecosystem's status and can provide feedback on management progress (Slocombe 1998a). Examples may include the population size of a species or the levels of toxin present in a body of water. Social indicators may also be used such as the number or types of jobs within the environmental sector or the livelihood of specific social groups such as indigenous peoples.

Setting thresholds

Tallis et al. (2010) suggest setting thresholds for each indicator and setting targets that would represent a desired level of health for the ecosystem. Examples may include species composition within an ecosystem or the state of habitat conditions based on local observations or stakeholder interviews. Thresholds can be used to help guide management, particularly for a species by looking at the conservation status criteria established by either state or federal agencies and using models such as the minimum viable population size.

Risk analysis

A range of threats and disturbances, both natural and human, often can affect indicators. Risk is defined as the sensitivity of an indicator to an ecological disturbance. Several models can be used to assess risk such as population viability analysis.


Evaluating the effectiveness of the implemented management strategies is very important in determining how management actions are affecting the ecosystem indicators. Evaluation: This final step involves monitoring and assessing data to see how well the management strategies chosen are performing relative to the initial objectives stated. The use of simulation models or multi-stakeholder groups can help to assess management.

It is important to note that many of these steps for implementing ecosystem-based management are limited by the governance in place for a region, the data available for assessing ecosystem status and reflecting on the changes occurring, and the time frame in which to operate.


Because ecosystems differ greatly and express varying degrees of vulnerability, it is difficult to apply a functional framework that can be universally applied. These outlined steps or components of ecosystem-based management can, for the most part, be applied to multiple situations and are only suggestions for improving or guiding the challenges involved with managing complex issues. Because of the greater amount of influences, impacts, and interactions to account for, problems, obstacles and criticism often arise within ecosystem-based management.

The first commonly defined challenge is the need for meaningful and appropriate management units. These units must be broad and contain value for people in and outside of the protected area (Slocombe 1998b). For example, Aberley (1993) suggests the use of "bioregions" as management units, which can allow peoples involvement with that region to come through. To define management units as inclusive regions rather that exclusive ecological zones would prevent further limitations created by narrow or restricting political and economic policy created from the units. Slocombe (1998b) suggests that better management units should be flexible and build from existing units and that the biggest challenge is creating truly effect units for managers to compare against.

Another issue is in the creation of administrative bodies. They should operate as the essence of ecosystem-based management, working together towards mutually agreed upon goals. Gaps in administration or research, competing objectives or priorities between management agencies and governments due to overlapping jurisdictions, or obscure goals such as sustainability, ecosystem integrity, or biodiversity can often result in fragmented or weak management (Slocombe 1998b). In addition, limited knowledge of ecosystem components and function and time constraints that can often limit objectives to only those that can be addressed in the short-term (Slocombe 1993; Tallis et al. 2010).

The most challenging issue facing ecosystem-based management is that there exists little knowledge about the system and its effectiveness. With limited resources available on how to implement the system it is hard to find support for its use (Slocombe 1998b).

Criticism of ecosystem-based management include its reliance on analogy and comparisons, too broadly applied frameworks, its overlap with or duplication of other methods such as ecosystem management, environmental management, or integrated ecosystem assessment, its vagueness in concepts and application, and its tendency to ignore historical, evolutionary or individual factors that may heavily influence ecosystem functioning (Slocombe 1993).

Ecosystem-based management is seen as a critical planning and management framework for conserving or restoring ecosystems though it is still not widely implemented (Tallis et al. 2010). An ecosystem approach addresses many relationships across spatial, biological, and organizational scales and is a goal-driven approach to restoring and sustaining ecosystems and functions (Szaro et al. 1998). In addition, ecosystem-based management involves community influence as well as planning and management from local, regional and national government bodies and management agencies. All must be in collaboration in order to develop a desired future of ecosystem conditions, particularly where ecosystems have undergone radical degradation and change (Szaro et al. 1998). To move forward, ecosystem-based management should be approached through adaptive management, allowing flexibility and inclusiveness to deal with constant environmental, societal, and political change (Slocombe 1998b).

Marine systems[edit]

Ecosystem-based management for marine environments moves away from the traditional strategies in which single species and single sectors are managed individually (Slocombe 1993); rather it is an integrated approach which considers all key activities, particularly anthropogenic, that affect marine environments (Levin and Lubchenco 2008). The objective is to ensure sustainable ecosystems, thus protecting the resources and services they provide (Guerry 2005).

In recent years there has been increasing recognition of disruption to marine ecosystems resulting from climate change, overfishing, nutrient and chemical pollution from land runoff, coastal development, bycatch, habitat destruction and other human activities (Levin and Lubchenco 2008). There are very clear links between human activities and marine ecosystem functioning; this has become an issue of high importance because there are many services provided by marine ecosystems that are declining as a result of these impacts. These services include the provision of food, fuel, mineral resources, pharmaceuticals, as well as opportunities for recreation, trade, research and education (Leslie and McLeod 2007).

Guerry (2005) has identified an urgent need to improve the management of these declining ecosystems, particularly in coastal areas, to ensure a sustainable future. Human communities depend on marine ecosystems for important resources, but without holistic management these ecosystems are likely to collapse. It has been suggested that the degradation of marine ecosystems is largely the result of poor governance and that new approaches to management are required (Olsson et al. 2008). The Pew Oceans Commission (POC 2003) and the US Commission of Ocean Policy (USCOP 2004) have indicated the importance of moving from current piecemeal management to a more integrated ecosystem-based approach (Guerry 2005).

Key elements[edit]


At its core, ecosystem-based management is about acknowledging interdependency connections, including the linkages between marine ecosystems and human societies, economies and institutional systems, as well as those among various species within an ecosystem and among ocean places that are linked by the movement of species, materials, and ocean currents (McLeod and Leslie 2009). The more information we can gather about an ecosystem and all of the interconnected factors which affect it, the more capable we will be of better managing that system (Guerry 2005).

Cumulative impacts

Ecosystem-based management focuses on how individual actions affect the ecosystem services that flow from coupled socio-ecological systems in an integrated fashion, rather than considering these impacts in a piecemeal manner (McLeod and Leslie 2009). Loss of biodiversity in marine ecosystems is an example of how cumulative effects from different sectors can impact on an ecosystem in a compounding way. Overfishing, coastal development, filling and dredging, mining and other human activities all contribute to the loss of biodiversity and therefore degradation of the ecosystem (Leslie et al. 2008).

Interactions between sectors

The only way to deal with the cumulative effects of human influences on marine ecosystems is for various contributing sectors to set common goals for the protection or management of ecosystems (Leslie et al. 2008). While some policies may only affect a single sector, others may affect multiple sectors. A policy for the protection of endangered marine species, for example, could affect recreational and commercial fisheries, mining, shipping and tourism sectors to name a few (Leslie et al. 2008). More effective ecosystem management would result from the collective adoption of policies by all sectors, rather than each sector creating their own isolated policies.

Changing public perceptions

Not all members of the public will be properly informed, or be fully aware, of current threats to marine ecosystems and it is therefore important to change public perceptions by informing people about these issues. It is important to consider the interest of the public when making decisions about ocean management and not just those who have a material interest (Leslie and McLeod 2007) because community support is needed by management agencies in order to make decisions. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) faced the issue of poor public awareness in their proposed management strategy which included no-take fishing zones (Olsson et al. 2008). They addressed this problem by starting a 'reef under pressure' information campaign to prove to the public that the Great Barrier Reef is under threat from human disturbances, and in doing so were successful in gaining public support (Olsson et al. 2008).

Bridging science and policy

To ensure that all key players are on the same page, it is important to have communication between managers, resource users, scientists, government bodies and other stakeholders (Leslie and McLeod 2007). Proper engagement between these groups will enable the development of management initiatives that are realistic and enforceable (Leslie and McLeod 2007) as well as effective for ecosystem management.

Embracing change

Coupled social-ecological systems are constantly changing in ways that cannot be fully predicted or controlled. Understanding the resilience of ecosystems, i.e. the extent to which they can maintain structure, function, and identity in the face of disturbance, can enable better prediction of how ecosystems will respond to both natural and anthropogenic perturbations, and to changes in environmental management (McLeod and Leslie 2009).

Multiple objectives

Ecosystem-based management focuses on the diverse benefits provided by marine systems, rather than on single ecosystem services. Such benefits or services include vibrant commercial and recreational fisheries, biodiversity conservation, renewable energy from wind or waves and coastal protection (McLeod and Leslie 2009).

Learning and adaptation

Because of the lack of control and predictability of coupled social-ecological systems, an adaptive management approach is recommended (Leslie and McLeod 2007).

Other examples[edit]

Great Bear Rainforest - Canada

The Land and Resource Management Planning (LRMP) was implemented by the British Columbia Government (Canada) in the mid-1990s in the Great Bear Rainforest in order to establish a multiparty land-use planning system (MacKinnon 2008). The aim was to "maintain the ecological integrity of terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems and achieve high levels of human well-being" (MacKinnon 2008). The steps described in the programme included: protect old-growth forests, maintain forest structure at the stand level, protect threatened and endangered species and ecosystems, protect wetlands and apply adaptive management. MacKinnon (2008) highlighted that the main limitation of this program was the social and economic aspects related to the lack of orientation to improve human well-being.

The Great Lakes - Canada and United States

A Remedial Action Plan (RAP) was created during the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that implemented ecosystem-based management (Hartig et al. 1998). The transition, according to the authors, from "a narrow to a broader approach " was not easy because it required the cooperation of both the Canadian and American governments. This meant different cultural, political and regulatory perspectives were involved with regards to the lakes. Hartig et al. (1998) described eight principles required to make the implementation of ecosystem-based management efficacious: "broad-based stakeholder involvement; commitment of top leaders; agreement on information needs and interpretation; action planning within a strategic framework; human resource development; results and indicators to measure progress; systematic review and feedback; and stakeholder satisfaction".

See also[edit]



  • Aberley, D. (Ed.) 1993. Boundaries of Home: mapping for local empowerment. (pp. 1–7). Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publications.
  • Christensen, N. L., A. Bartuska, J. H. Brown, S. Carpenter, C. D'Antonio, R. Francis, J. F. Franklin, J. A. MacMahon, R. F. Noss, D. J. Parsons, C. H. Peterson, M. G. Turner, and R. G. Woodmansee. 1996. The report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the scientific basis for ecosystem management. Ecological Applications. 6:665-691.
  • Grumbine, R. E. 1994 What is Ecosystem Management? Conservation Biology. 8:27-38.
  • Guerry, A.D. 2005. Icarus and Daedalus: conceptual and tactical lessons for marine ecosystem-based management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 3:202-211.
  • Hartig, J.H., Zarull, M.A, Heidtke, T.M. and Shah, H. 1998. Implementing Ecosystem-based Management: Lessons from the Great Lakes. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 41:45-75.
  • Leslie, H.M. and McLeod, K.L. 2007. Confronting the challenges of implementing marine-ecosystem-based management. The Ecological Society of America. 5:540-548.
  • Leslie, H., Rosenberg, A.A. and Eagle, J. 2008. Is a new mandate needed for marine ecosystem-based management?. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 6:43-48.
  • Levin, S.A. and Lubchenco, J. 2008. Resilience, robustness, and marine ecosystem-based management. BioScience. 58:27-32.
  • Mackinnon, A. 2008. Ecosystem-based Management in the Central and North Coast Areas of British Columbia, in McAfee, B. and Malouin C. (eds), Implementing Ecosystem-Based Management Approaches in Canada's Forests: A science-policy dialogue. Natural Resources Canada, Ottawa.
  • McLeod, K. L., and H. M. Leslie, editors. 2009. Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans. Island Press, Washington, DC.
  • McLeod, K. L., J. Lubchenco, S. R. Palumbi, and A. A. Rosenberg. 2005. Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine Ecosystem-Based Management. Signed by 221 academic scientists and policy experts with relevant expertise and published by the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea [1]
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends. Island Press, Washington, DC.
  • Olsson, P., Folke, C. and Hughes, T.P. 2008. Navigating the transition to ecosystem-based management of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. PNAS. 105:9489-9494.
  • POC. 2003. America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. Pew Oceans Commission (POC), Arlington, Virginia. [2]
  • Slocombe, D.S. 1993. Implementing ecosystem-based management. BioScience. 43:612-622.
  • Slocombe, D.S. 1998a. Defining goals and criteria for ecosystem-based management. Environmental Management. 22:483-493.
  • Slocombe, D.S. 1998b. Lessons from experience with ecosystem-based management. Landscape and Urban Planning. 40:31-39.
  • Szaro, R.C., Sexton, W.T. and Malone, C.R. 1998 The emergence of ecosystem management as a tool for meeting people's needs and sustaining ecosystems. Landscape and Urban Planning. 40:1-7.
  • Tallis, H., Levin, P.S., Ruckelshaus, M., Lester, S.E., McLeod, K.L., Fluharty, D.L. and Halpern, B.S. 2010. The many faces of ecosystem-based management: Making the process work today in real places. Marine Policy. 34:340-348.
  • USCOP. 2004. An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century: Final Report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP). Washington, DC. [3]
  • Wright, G. M and Thompson B. H. 1935 Fauna of the National Parks of the United States. United States Department of the Interior, Fauna Series 2, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D. C.
  • Yaffee, S. L. 1999. Three Faces of Ecosystem Management. Conservation Biology 13:713-725.

Online links[edit]