Ecosystem Management

Two crabs

An ecosystem is an interconnected group of living organisms, their habitats, and the processes that control their interactions. Most ecosystems have been affected by human activities to some degree. In addition, ecosystems are variable and change over time without human intervention. One of the fundamental challenges in marine ecology and management is to understand how natural processes and human activities interact to affect the future of marine ecosystems.

Ecosystem approaches to management (EAM)* seek to manage human activities in ways that preserve the ability of natural systems to function and to adapt to change. In simple terms, EAM includes humans as part of the ecosystem and establishes a goal of maintaining all the system’s parts and functionality into the future. This requires an integrative and comprehensive approach to understanding basic processes and managing human impacts. Since there remains much to learn about marine biodiversity and how marine ecosystems function, implementing EAM requires commitments to precautionary approaches, research, and the adaptive use of knowledge as it is gained from research and management “experiments.”

These goals were most recently set out in three reports in the U.S. and Canada: the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, the Pew Oceans Commission (U.S.), and Canada’s 1997 Oceans Act (see references). Please read a helpful synopsis of definitions and concepts.

Ecosystem Services. Ecosystems provide many services that are generally overlooked or undervalued. The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2006) defines services in four principal categories (with examples): provisioning (food, water, timber, fiber); regulating (climate, floods, water quality); cultural (recreation, aesthetic); and supporting (primary production, nutrient cycling). Integrated effects on these services form one basis for developing EAM.

Often, the linkages between ecological processes and human benefits (services) are not well understood, and there are many “support” processes that play important but often hidden roles. Ecosystems have withstood many disturbances over time, but they are not infinitely resilient. The Millenium Assessment (2006) reported that 60% of ecosystems are degraded globally, and marine environments of all sizes are affected (Worm et al. 2006). Over-all ecosystem function and sustainability, including the ability of systems to adapt to changes over time, are concepts of recognized importance for the long-term viability of natural and human populations.

* this is roughly synonymous with the term ecosystem-based management (EBM). The word “approaches” does a better job of conveying that (1) our knowledge of ecosystems is incomplete, and (2) we already have numerous management structures in place that are not going to be discarded for a new, untried scheme. The practical reality for the foreseeable future is that we will have to work with the current, multi-sector approaches to introduce ecosystem considerations and integrated management (see Murawski 2007, “Ten myths concerning ecosystem approaches to marine resource management”, Marine Policy 31: 681-690).


  • Christensen, N.L., A.M. 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(3): 665 691.
  • Fluharty, D. 2005. Evolving ecosystem approaches to management of fisheries in the USA. In: Browman, HI, Stergiou, KI (eds.). Politics and socio-economics of ecosystem-based management of marine resources. Marine Ecology Progress Series 300: 248-253
  • Grumbine, R.E. 1994. What is ecosystem management? Conservation Biology 8: 27-38
  • Link, J.S. 2002. What does ecosystem-based fisheries management mean? Fisheries 27: 18-21.
  • McLeod, K. L., J. Lubchenco, S. R. Palumbi, and A. A. Rosenberg. 2005. Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine Ecosystem-Based Management. Signed by 219 academic scientists and policy experts with relevant expertise and published by the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS). (Available online – PDF
  • Murawski, S. 2007. Ten myths concerning ecosystem approaches to marine resource management. Marine Policy 31: 681-690.
  • Pew Oceans Commission. 2003. America’s Living Ocean: Charting a Course for Sea Change. Pew Oceans Commission, Arlington, Virginia. 144 pp.
  • Sinclair, M. and Valdimarsson, G. (Editors). 2003. Responsible Fisheries in the Marine Environment. FAO and CABI Publishing. 426 pp.
  • U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004. An ocean blueprint for the 21st century. Final report of the US Commission on Ocean Policy. Washington, DC, 522 pp + appendices