Federal Efforts in Ecosystem-Based Management

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


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 can be addressed with EBM by utilizing a broad management approach that considers cumulative impacts on marine environments. This approach 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.

The National Ocean Policy identifies EBM as a foundational principle of ocean and coastal resource management. To advance the goals put forward by Executive Order 13547 and the National Ocean Policy, an interagency team has been working to increase the understanding and use of EBM by federal agencies. In discussing strategies to expand and improve EBM practices many federal agencies said that they already were already using EBM in the marine environment. The interagency team has recently used a questionnaire tool to identify and analyze how EBM is used currently in the Federal Government. More than 60 federal programs and projects from 13 agencies responded to the questionnaire, providing information on a wide range of program components ranging from trainings and partnerships to the use of EBM principles and best practices. While the response is far from comprehensive, it provides valuable insights into who is using EBM and the similarities, differences, and lessons to be learned from these programs.

This large sub-sample of federal programs using EBM provides valuable information about current trends in federal EBM implementation for marine and coastal areas. The results show that there are many paths to EBM, with no specific approach being better than others. This is because EBM is a dynamic, adaptive, and iterative process that changes based on the spatial scale and location of the project and according to mission and goals of the agency/program. Nevertheless, all EBM strategies strive for a common goal, which is framed broadly within a common set of core elements.  These elements of EBM include being:

  • Adaptive and flexible, responsive to monitoring and research results;
  • Place-based with geographic areas defined by ecological criteria;
  • Cross-sectoral, considering interactions between sectors of human activity;
  • Proactive, incorporating tradeoffs to manage the marine and coastal environments; and
  • Inclusive and collaborative, encourages participation from all levels of government, indigenous peoples, and stakeholders.

The survey results also identified numerous training tools in various programs, including many that may be adaptable for other federal programs.  These tools included both online and in-person classes and manuals. Expanding collaborations and knowledge sharing within and between agencies will be essential to advancing expanding and improving EBM use.

The results also highlight substantial differences between programs, including their perceived alignment with EBM principles and best practices.  Programs with the primary goal of managing natural resources displayed a higher level of integration of EBM approaches than programs primarily focused on science and research or programs that managed non-natural resource projects in ocean and coastal areas.  The advancement of effective EBM strategies relies on scientists, managers, conservationists, and policy-makers bringing together their diverse knowledge and expertise.

This analysis shows that there is broad use of EBM by federal programs in the marine environment; but there is also room for improvement. Enhancing collaborations between science and management programs and across different agencies will help move us towards the holistic marine resource management practices needed to support healthy ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems, and to sustain the myriad economic, societal, and environmental services they provide.

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