Ecosystem-based management

Ecosystem-based management (EBM) is an integrated, science-based approach to the management of natural resources that aims to sustain the health, resilience and diversity of ecosystems while allowing for sustainable use by humans of the goods and services they provide.

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Marine systems face a multiplicity of threats from human activities both on land and at sea. Many of these threats are on the rise, especially as coastal populations continue to grow around the world. This growing population places pressure on the oceans, affecting coastal water quality and human health; the availability of healthy, abundant seafood to feed people; the abundance and diversity of marine life; and even climate. Around the world, governance and management of marine systems have traditionally been very fragmented, with decisions made sector by sector or issue by issue, despite the clear feedbacks among these arenas (e.g. coastal development, coastal water quality, and human health, or habitat degradation, biodiversity and shoreline protection from waves and storms). In contrast to traditional approaches to management, ecosystem-based management is an integrated, place-based approach to the management of human activities that has been proposed (and in some cases legislated and implemented, see below) as a solution to the complex challenges presented by ocean ecosystems and the fragmented nature of ocean governance.

Ecosystem-based management has been defined in a wide variety of ways, in part because the concept is early in its development, it is evolving as it is adopted and applied for different purposes, and the site-specific nature of ecosystems and associated human activities prevents a single approach and definition from working universally. Broadly speaking, ecosystem-based management is an integrated approach to management that considers the entire ecosystem, linkages across systems and disciplines, and the cumulative impacts of different human sectors. Its aim is to sustain ecosystems in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so that they can provide the functions, goods and services that enrich and sustain human well-being. As such, ecosystem-based management necessarily incorporates biological, physical and human components, including social and economic systems. Ecosystem-based management’s goals include learning how these biophysical and socioeconomic spheres interact, and finding institutional and scientific ways of managing multiple human activities within entire ecosystems (rather than arbitrary management units), based on this understanding of the linkages among activities and social and ecological system components. By contrast, ecosystem management, (as opposed to ecosystem-based management), emphasizes ecological interactions within an ecosystem, rather than human activities, and implies that it is possible to understand, control and manage entire ecosystems. In the face of the dynamic and complex nature of marine and coastal ecosystems and the suite of human activities that occur within them, proponents of ecosystem-based management acknowledge that it will never be possible to fully understand an ecosystem’s inner workings nor to perfectly predict the consequences of management actions. Therefore, this approach emphasizes developing management systems that are “safe to fail, rather than fail-safe,” which are precautionary and adaptive given significant uncertainty about and evolving understanding of both present and future ecosystem dynamics.

History and development of ecosystem-based management

Ecosystem-based management has roots in the thinking of early conservationists like Aldo Leopold, and in the ecosystem approaches and general systems-based approaches that were developed in ecology, anthropology and other disciplines in the 1960s and 1970s. These scientific and philosophical developments helped to inform regional, bioregional, and integrated resource management approaches, such as watershed management and integrated coastal zone management, all of which fed into the framework for ecosystem-based management that has since emerged. Ecosystem-based management builds on these earlier approaches while incorporating elements of ecosystem science, conservation biology, and environmental planning and maintaining an explicit focus on the management of human impacts within the ecosystem.

For some sectors, federal and state legislation has directed management to incorporate ecosystem approaches into decision-making. In 1996, the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA), passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, mandated that fisheries management move toward the use of ecosystem approaches, including, in particular, better incorporation of information on fish habitats. This legislation planted the seed for ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) in the US – an approach that lies along the path to EBM, but which is focused on a single sector of human activity. EBFM builds on current practices such as consideration of environment and climate regimes, essential fish habitat, non-fishing impacts on living marine resources, bycatch management, threatened and endangered species, and uncertainty and risk in management decisions, while incorporating these into a new framework.

Recently, the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy concluded that a combination of human activities on land, along the coasts, and in the ocean are unintentionally but seriously affecting marine ecosystems and threatening the ability of ocean ecosystems to provide the benefits humans expect from the oceans. Both commissions call for a more comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based approach founded on principles of sustainability, adaptation, and participatory governance and that uses the best available science (Pew Oceans Report & US Oceans Commission Report).

Ecosystem-based management in action

Ecosystem-based management has been implemented in a number of places around the world. In Antarctica, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an international treaty that came into force in 1982, mandates ecosystem-based management of resources of the region. The Convention mandates a precautionary approach to managing harvest and other associated human activities, taking into account the linkages among species and the physical environment. Its stated conservation principles are to maintain harvested populations above the levels that ensure stable recruitment; to maintain ecological relationships among harvested, dependent and related species and restore any depleted species populations back to stable levels; and to prevent or minimize the risk of changes to the environment that couldn’t be easily reversed in less than two or three decades.

While management of Antarctic resources has primarily been focused on the fisheries sector (an example of ecosystem-based fisheries management), managers of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) have tackled management of multiple human activities over a large geographic area. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act of 1981 was one of the first to provide for comprehensive management of a marine ecosystem. In July of 2004, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) introduced ocean zoning for an area stretching over 2000 km. The philosophy of GBRMPA and of the zoning plan is underpinned by four principles: ecosystem-level management; conservation and reasonable use, providing for sustainable use and enjoyment of the GBR; stakeholder involvement in planning and implementation of management; and monitoring and regular evaluation of management effectiveness.

The science of ecosystem-based management

Marine ecosystems are complex systems, typified by linkages and feedbacks among human and environmental sub-systems with dynamics that occur across multiple scales of time and space in ways that are often difficult to predict. The data needed to understand these systems derive from multiple disciplines (e.g. oceanography, ecology, economics, political science, sociology) and vary in precision and spatial and temporal resolution. Often crucial data are missing entirely. When available, data may be highly uncertain, making system dynamics difficult to predict. Traditional disciplines and approaches have proven inadequate in answering questions about the dynamics of complex social-biological systems. In the face of such challenges, the emerging science of EBM has focused on developing:

  • integrative mathematical models that incorporate species interactions, feedback among ecological components and human activities, and critical environmental and anthropogenic drivers (like changes in climate);
  • methods for bringing together diverse datasets from biological, physical and social sciences;
  • techniques for accounting for uncertainty in datasets and model development;
  • ways to prioritize the most important data to collect to inform management; and
  • decision support tools that help managers to evaluate risks associated with potential management actions, examine different scenarios of change and make strategic and tactical management decisions.


Ecosystem-based management requires a wide variety of potential tools and approaches because of its place-based and adaptive nature. Existing approaches for EBM in marine systems include spatial control of human activities through the use of protected areas and/or ocean zoning; changes in governance such as the creation of regional coordinating agencies and local co-management structures; monitoring and evaluation via the use of ecosystem indicators derived from multiple disciplines; scenario testing and risk assessment; and precautionary adaptive management. Scientific tools such as integrated socioeconomic-ecological models, geographic information systems (GIS), and specialized software that can allow managers to examine alternate configurations for marine protected areas or other ocean zones can all help to support the use of these management approaches.

Though some steps have been taken worldwide towards applying certain elements of ecosystem-based management, we lack coordinated, comprehensive implementation. However, enough is known about marine ecosystems to begin to implement ecosystem-based management currently, especially if adaptive approaches are explicitly woven into the framework of ecosystem-based management. In a nutshell, designing programs to implement ecosystem-based management will include: involving stakeholders through participatory governance that account for both local interests and those of the wider public; establishing long-term observing monitoring and research programs to collect relevant data; using flexible, adaptive approaches to learn from management actions while allowing for scientifically-based evaluation; and testing alternate approaches and readjusting as new information becomes available.

About the Author: 
Carrie V. Kappel (Lead Author); Rebecca G Martone (Contributing Author);J. Emmett Duffy (Topic Editor) "Ecosystem-based management". In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth October 3, 2006; Last revised Date January 22, 2011; Retrieved March 25, 2013 <>