Getting the Big Picture: An Ecosystem Approach to Management

Managing our nation’s marine ecosystems is a key tenant of NOAA’s mission. To meet this goal, managers around the country are responsible for regulating fishing, boating, and many other coastal uses of the marine environment. They may be asked to do this in a variety of ways, including looking at each issue or species individually. However, the parts of marine ecosystems that we are interested in are all interconnected. Fish for example are linked to other species, the area where they live, human activities that impact the surrounding environment, and many other elements of the ecosystem. Managing the big picture and considering the full suite of interactions within an ecosystem is what is referred to as taking an ecosystem approach to management (EAM).

Surveying the current state of EAM

NOAA, in collaboration with researchers from Denmark, Italy, Canada, Norway, Australia, and Germany, recently conducted a survey to help assess the current state and application of EAM. Over 50 scientists, resource managers, and conservation professionals from around the world participated in the survey to share their perspectives and experiences on EAM. The results of this work were published in a December 2016 paper in the ICES Journal of Marine Science by Marshak et al.

Tony Marshak, lead author on the paper, noted, “The ecosystem approach has emerged as a preferred way to address many trade-offs in marine resource management. It was a priority to gauge how multiple sectors of the international community are applying EAM, their perceptions of its overall utility, and where we should continue to put our efforts in terms of its continued implementation.”

Challenges ahead

Nonetheless challenges remain. Improved communication with a wider group of stakeholders (e.g., industrial and energy sectors) about the benefits of EAM is needed to increase its application. Lacking or unclear mandates for EAM are also barriers in some regions, though progress is being made. In particular, guidance for explicitly addressing ecosystem considerations is now included in policies in the European Union, Australia, Norway, and the United States.

Next steps

Recommendations in the paper suggest that it will be important to quantify the benefits of EAM. Such studies would demonstrate the value EAM brings not just to species conservation, but to other sectors like transportation and energy. For example, the newly developed “WhaleWatch” tool uses satellite data to help predict the locations of blue whales off the west coast. The cost of using this tool to minimize the chance of a ship striking a blue whale could be much less than the cost of an actual ship strike. And a range of tools similar to WhaleWatch already exist. Another recommendation in the paper suggests that taking steps to better engage stakeholders in the full range of ocean use sectors will be essential to maximizing the benefits of EAM.

Coming full circle

The paper demonstrates that most progress towards EAM is being made in specific ocean-use sectors. In the fisheries sector NOAA is taking major steps towards EAM.  The agency released a new Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management Policy Directive and Road Map in November 2016 that will help guide the application of EAM in fisheries.

“What happens in one part of the ecosystem affects the rest of it,” says Marshak. “Activities offshore, for example, have implications beyond just one specific area that can affect fish, their prey, and the environment.” As NOAA and other agencies take steps toward managing the big picture, this paper shows that EAM is no longer just an idea, but an approach that is being applied around the world to better support resilient ecosystems and sustainable economies.


Download the ICES EAM Paper for Free


Anthony R. Marshak, Jason S. Link, Rebecca Shuford, Mark E. Monaco, Ellen Johannesen, Gabriella Bianchi, M. Robin Anderson, Erik Olsen, David C. Smith, Joern O. Schmidt, Mark Dickey-Collas; International perceptions of an integrated, multi-sectoral, ecosystem approach to management. ICES J Mar Sci 2016 fsw214. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsw214.

 "This is an accepted manuscript of an article published by the ICES Journal of Marine Science on December 09, 2016, available online at the following link."