Applications to Management

The Census of Marine Life program is committed to taking what is learned about biodiversity at all scales (within species, within communities, and between communities), integrating this knowledge, and applying it to improving management of human activities in the ocean. These pages discuss the thinking behind this approach and efforts by the Gulf of Maine Area Program to move marine biodiversity knowledge towards improved management.

What are Ecosystem Approaches to Management?

Wilson's storm petrels
Wilson’s storm petrels feeding on surface plankton, Platts Bank. Photo by Heather McRae.

Background and Rationale

The over-arching goals of the Gulf of Maine program are to: (1) increase knowledge of the patterns and roles of biodiversity in the Gulf of Maine area; and (2) demonstrate how this knowledge can be linked to ecosystem approaches to management (EAM)*.

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.

The objective of EAM is to manage human activities in ways that conserve all the parts and functions of ecosystems, including humans. There are practical and ethical reasons for pursuing this objective. Practical reasons include the sustainable production and discovery of useful commodities such as food, medicine, and unique compounds, as well as the need to preserve the capacity of systems to adapt to change. Ethical reasons include protection of the Earth’s rich evolutionary inheritance and aesthetic values. Please see references and a helpful synopsis of definitions and concepts of EAM.

The challenge for science is to understand how ecosystem processes, including human interactions, influence patterns of diversity and, conversely, how patterns of diversity influence the way that ecosystems function. The societal challenge is to understand and value ocean ecosystems and support the creation of integrative policies that sustain both natural and human systems. 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).

Rock Garden
"Rock Garden", a rocky ridge 200 m below the surface in, Jordan Basin. Photo: Discovery Corridor

A successful framework for the implementation of EAM would include knowledge, theory, goals, research, monitoring and application (management) strategies so that they all contribute to improved understanding and practices. Creating an environment supportive of EAM requires participation by many, and the open exchange of information and ideas among scientists, managers and public stakeholders. It also requires enhanced databases and information systems to facilitate access to information and stimulate its use and integration for research, public discourse and management.

Because fisheries comprise, on the whole, the most widespread human impact on marine ecosystems, they have been a focus of early attempts to formulate EAM. Canada and the United States both are moving toward an ecosystem approach to managing fisheries and other human activities that affect the Gulf of Maine area. There are other highly-impacted areas that would benefit from the development and application of EAM. For example, in the near-shore environment, land use patterns and pollution have major impacts on biological diversity and production, and there are numerous conflicting goals covered by different regulations and different regulatory agencies. EAM could provide a unifying approach to resolving these conflicts. However, the metrics have not been established: how would we know if we are on target for conserving ecosystem function?.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1995 adopted a Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries that calls for "protection of living aquatic resources and their environments and coastal areas" as well as "due respect for the ecosystem and biodiversity." Canada’s 1997 Oceans Act expanded the conservation objectives for the management of fisheries to include ecosystem features in addition to protection of the target species. The United States’ 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act required identification of "essential fish habitat" and measures to protect it.

Scientific Basis

Ecosystems provide many services that are generally overlooked or undervalued, often because the linkages between ecological processes and human benefits are not well understood. 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). This shifting baseline is now apparent by its economic impacts on resource harvesting, but there are other consequences that, to date, we have not managed for specifically except at fairly local scales. 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. It is, however, difficult to translate these goals into management steps or measurements. The maintenance of biodiversity is one goal that might have great utility as a common denominator among many different types of activities, requiring restraints and trade-offs in order to conserve diversity at genetic, species and ecosystem levels. There is a growing body of evidence that diversity helps to support ecosystem functioning, probably through a variety of mechanisms. These relationships and mechanisms need to be better understood to underpin the development of improved management approaches, as well as to increase our appreciation for the world around us. It is certain that we will not know the full extent of marine biodiversity for many years to come, let alone understand and monitor its many patterns and variations. It will therefore be important to establish indicators for these patterns.


As a scientific basis for developing EAM in the Gulf of Maine, we need to know the patterns of biodiversity (perhaps by describing communities, including their physiographic settings), how these patterns contribute to functioning of the larger ecosystem in which they are embedded, how the environment and humans cause these patterns and functions to change, and what measurements constitute reliable proxies for the complex patterns and functions of the communities. Marine communities are affected by temperature, transport and a number of other factors that vary spatially and temporally, making this a complex interdisciplinary undertaking. The challenges are substantial, but this is a wholly worthy topic where scientific curiosity and societal benefit have a great opportunity and mandate to meet.

A very readable introduction to some of these ideas is given by the Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine Ecosystem-Based Management (PDF 728kb) issued by the COMPASS project in March, 2005 (see references for this and other citations).

Implementation Strategies

There is currently a great deal of discussion nationally and internationally about how to do this. This section of the website will be updated as progress is made. The goal of the Gulf of Maine Area Program is to recommend regionally tailored strategies by 2010.

* 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