Demystifying Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management

Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) became a major initiative of resource managers around the world beginning in the 1990s.  Unlike traditional management approaches that focused solely on the biology of a particular stock, EBFM provides a more holistic approach to fisheries management – one that takes into account the complex suite of biological, physical, economic, and social factors associated with managing living marine resources.  

EBFM has continued to evolve over the past 20 years and is now a cornerstone of NOAA Fisheries’ efforts to sustainably manage the nation’s marine resources.  But despite substantial progress in the science behind and application of EBFM, a perception remains that the science and governance structures to implement EBFM are lacking, when in fact they have already been resolved in the United States and other developed countries.  An April 2015 article in Fisheries took on the important challenge of identifying some of the most common myths that can impede the implementation of EBFM.  Here’s a look at some of them.


Myth 1: Marine ecosystem-based management lacks universal terminology, making it difficult to implement.


The scientific literature provides clear and consistent definitions of marine ecosystem-based management and associated terminology.  There are three primary levels of ecosystem-based management in relation to marine fisheries that differ by focus area. Full definitions can be found in the paper. From most comprehensive to least comprehensive, the three levels differ by their key focus:

  1. Ecosystem approaches to fisheries management (EAFM) focus on a single fisheries stock and include other factors that can influence a stock.
  2. Ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM)  focuses on the fisheries sector (multiple fisheries).
  3. Ecosystem-based management (EBM) focuses on multiple sectors, such as fisheries, ecotourism, and oil and gas exploration.

Myth 2: There's no clear mandate for EBFM.


For the past 20 years, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, combined with more than 90 separate federal legislative mandates, either implicitly or explicitly have given NOAA authority to implement an ecosystem-based approach to management.  NOAA Fisheries specifically has been fully engaged during this period to implement EBFM, in order to more efficiently and effectively fulfill its key mandate – stewardship of the nation’s living marine resources and their habitats, interactions, and ecosystems. Rather than waiting for the perfect mandate to move forward with EBFM, managers, scientists, and policymakers can and should move forward within current authorities.

Myth 3: EBFM requires extensive data and complicated models.


A common misconception is that EBFM requires comprehensive data and complex models, and can only be applied in exceptional, data-rich circumstances.  The reality is that EBFM begins with what is known about the ecosystem.  It provides a framework to use all available knowledge, whether it’s a detailed time series of species abundance or more descriptive local knowledge of the ecosystem.  When data are limited, approaches such as risk, portfolio, or loop analysis can be applied to work with available information.  These techniques provide managers with a tool to assess whether a fish population or the ecosystem is likely to reach a tipping point.

The key point here is that EBFM allows managers to work with the information available to best manage the resources in an ecosystem, aware of all the parts of the system simultaneously.

Myth 4: EBFM results will always be conservative and restrictive.


There is an existing perception that applying EBFM will always result in a more precautionary approach to management and reduced catch limits.  The rationale is that accounting for more uncertainty as well as focusing on conserving protected or non-target species will lead to more restrictive management measures that further reduce catches below maximum sustainable yield (MSY) levels.  A better question might be, why would stakeholders ignore the best available science and jeopardize the resiliency of the stocks and ecosystem? Fisheries scientists over the past half century have criticized the concept of maximum sustainable yield for single species because of the impossibility of achieving MSY for all species simultaneously.

Furthermore, some studies show that when management applies EBFM and focuses on the combined landings and value of all targeted species in an ecosystem, the landings are comparable to the amounts under single-species management.  Plus, there may be long-term economic benefits for multiple fisheries when the system is managed as a whole.   

Myth 5: EBFM is a naïve attempt to describe a complex system.


Proponents see EBFM as a solution, whereas critics see it as an approach that falls short of addressing the many socioeconomic, political, and other challenges inherent in marine resource management.  Scientific agencies worldwide have traditionally given fishery management advice on a stock-by-stock basis rather than consider multiple fisheries and multiple user groups. But ignoring the trade-offs, or the existence of multiple objectives, does not make them go away.  Different stakeholders often have competing interests, and it is important to acknowledge these differences and identify management options that optimize the full range of interests.  Strategies can often meet multiple objectives, such that no one stock, fishery, sector, economy, or community is unknowingly depleted at the expense of another. Ultimately, EBFM is about trade-off analysis – examining which options meet the most objectives as a collective system.

Myth 6: There aren't enough resources to do EBFM.


A final myth is that it will take substantially more resources – more funding, staff, data, and sophisticated models – to implement EBFM.  But EBFM implementation actually has the potential to increase efficiencies.  Many national and international working groups currently exist to support single-species management efforts.  A transition to EBFM allows multiple species to be addressed through a more integrated assessment process, thus requiring fewer working groups.  This has the potential to reduce staff workloads and consolidate modeling efforts.  In addition, applying EBFM has been shown to improve the stability of marine ecosystems, which translates into improved regulatory and economic stability and better business planning.

Dispelling the myths and taking action

These myths have discouraged some managers from even trying EBFM and have prevented them from getting the best available information needed for resource management.  Instead of viewing EBFM as a complex management process that requires an overabundance of information, it should be viewed as a framework to help managers work with the information they have and address competing objectives.   To learn more about EBFM and how NOAA is implementing it, click here.

One does not need perfect knowledge of every process to implement EBFM."  

Download the Myths Paper for Free


Wesley S. Patrick and Jason S. Link.  (2015) Myths that Continue to Impede Progress in Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management, Fisheries, 40:14, 155-160, DOI:  10.1080/03632415.2015.1024308.

 "This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Fisheries on April 15, 2015, available online:


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NOAA Fisheries and EBFM

NOAA Fisheries is undertaking several efforts to enhance its ability to apply EBFM.  One example is the Fisheries and the Environment (FATE) program designed to advance the understanding of environmental impacts on living marine resources.  Another is the  Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Program , a NOAA-wide ecosystem-based management program designed to provide information to resource managers.