Multisectoral ocean use

What is Ecosystem Based Management?

Ecosystem-based management (EBM) is an integrated management approach that recognizes the full array of     interactions within an ecosystem, including humans, rather than considering single issues, species, or ecosystem services in isolation. The current and future environmental challenges facing ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems benefit from EBM by utilizing a broad management approach that considers cumulative impacts on marine environments; an approach that works across sectors to manage species and habitats, economic activities, conflicting uses, and the sustainability of resources. EBM allows for consideration of resource tradeoffs that help protect and sustain diverse and productive ecosystems and the services they provide.


Ecosystem-Based Management includes the following core characteristics:

Adaptive and flexible, responsive to monitoring and research results

Adaptive management is an essential aspect of EBM; it is a way of managing the dynamic nature of ecosystems in the face of uncertainty by considering a broad range of influences within a region, including external influences, factors, and stressors. To increase effectiveness, adaptive management is often based on an open and mutually agreed upon process for monitoring and assessing the outcome of management actions; a process that allows for mid-course corrections to achieve desired outcomes.

Adaptive management also takes into account socioeconomic considerations, stakeholder participation, conflict resolution, legal and policy barriers, and institutional challenges. Being adaptive requires people and institutions to be flexible, innovative, and highly responsive to new information and experiences. Adaptive management succeeds when there are clear linkages among information, actions, and results and a strong climate of trust among partners. Considering local, state, federal, and international actions and sharing data are also critical to success.

Place-based with geographic areas defined by ecological criteria

EBM is inherently linked to a place, yet ecosystems and managed resources often cross traditional political boundaries. In addition, resources are influenced by drivers, such as oceanographic and climatic conditions and socioeconomic factors. The dynamic nature of the environment may create “fuzzy” or imprecise boundaries, but these boundaries are a key factor to the EBM framework by focusing action on a specified place and issue. Ultimately, boundaries inform scientific investigation and collaborative management strategies.

Using the internationally recognized Large Marine Ecosystem model, NOAA worked with partners and stakeholders to delineate eight Regional Ecosystems for U.S. waters. However, NOAA recognizes that these boundaries may change according to the issue being addressed. By working geographically, we can engage affected partners and stakeholders, identify and address information gaps, minimize duplication of efforts, and focus on priority issues that are the most compelling resource management challenges for each region.

Cross-sectoral, considering interactions between sectors of human activity

EBM is cross-sectoral, explicitly considering the interactions between sectors of human activity (e.g. fishing and off-shore energy development) that overlap in the coastal and marine environment. Most resource management (whether by federal, state, local or tribal governments) is of a single sector and is often called for by a statute (state or federal or both) specific to that sector, which may or may not guide how interactions with other sectors should be handled.  EBM differs from conventional approaches that focus on a single species, sector, activity or concern; EBM works at multiple levels and considers the cumulative impacts of different sectors. 

For example, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) currently states that overfishing shall not be allowed and sets quantitative definitions of what constitutes overfishing. However, MSA does not address the harm to fisheries from activities in other sectors, with the exception of calling for consultation on activities authorized by federal agencies that may impact essential fish habitat. An EBM approach would include cross-sectoral and cross-agency consideration of impacts along with development of management measures to address those impacts. Furthermore, current authorities, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), contain limited requirements for consideration of cumulative impacts, but these requirements are minimally used in practice. Under EBM these current authorities will be used to ensure cumulative impacts are considered in resource management decisions.

Successful EBM implementation requires the consideration of cumulative impacts on the marine environment across sectors EBM is not an additional layer of regulation, but an improvement of current inter-agency consultation and state-federal interactions. The use of EBM can increase efficiency, certainty, and stability in regulatory processes as well as planning and implementation of projects in the marine environment.

Proactive, incorporating tradeoffs to manage the marine and coastal environments.

EBM recognizes that tradeoffs are needed in the management of resources and human activities in ocean and coastal ecosystems. It is rarely possible to optimize all activities at once without some tradeoff in uses and goals. For example, increased energy development might result in some loss or degradation of habitats, recreational areas, or fishing grounds, yet often necessary to meet the nation’s energy demand. Under current management practices these tradeoffs still exist but are not explicitly dealt with, and the interaction between sectors is often contentious and difficult to resolve. In practice, tradeoffs and conflicts are often dealt with after the initial activity planning or permitting occurs, frequently resulting in long delays or lawsuits. Using an EBM approach, tradeoffs are explicit and become part of the planning and permitting efforts, ensuring that all stakeholders have the opportunity to engage and resolve issues proactively.

Inclusive and collaborative, encourages participation from all levels of government, indigenous peoples, stakeholders

To be successful, EBM approaches must be inclusive and collaborative at all stages of the process.  A diverse mix of collaborators and stakeholders should be included in the planning and implementation of any EBM activity. Group diversity will bring unique contributions and motivation to the table. Partners and stakeholders are part of the solution and realize that their goals will best be achieved by working together.

One of the best models of a collaborative approach can be seen in the work of the Coral Reef Task Force. Twelve federal agencies work together with seven U.S. states, territories, and freely associated states to coordinate coral reef conservation activities. Task force activities are guided by Local Action Strategy work plans, which represent the input of thousands of stakeholders.