What is Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM)?

An Integrated Approach to Management

EBM is an integrated approach that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans. Marine management typically has focused on a single species, sector, activity or concern, whereas EBM takes into account the cumulative impacts and interactions of different human activities.


Marine monitors. Photo © Nancy Sefton

The goal of EBM is to maintain an ecosystem in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so that it can provide the services humans want and need.

According to the COMPASS Scientific Consensus Statement, ecosystem-based management:

  • emphasizes the protection of ecosystem structure, functioning and key processes
  • is place-based in focusing on a specific ecosystem and the range of activities affecting it
  • explicitly accounts for the interconnectedness among systems, such as between air, land and sea
  •  integrates ecological, social, economic and institutional perspectives, recognizing their strong interdependences

Christensen et al. (1996) defines the following elements of ecosystem-based management:

  • Sustainability. Ecosystem management does not focus primarily on “deliverables” but rather regards intergenerational sustainability as a precondition.
  • Goals. Ecosystem management establishes measurable goals that specify future processes and outcomes necessary for sustainability.
  • Sound ecological models and understanding. Ecosystem management relies on research performed at all levels of ecological organization.
  • Complexity and connectedness. Ecosystem management recognizes that biological diversity and structural complexity strengthen ecosystems against disturbance and supply the genetic resources necessary to adapt to long-term change.
  • The dynamic character of ecosystems. Recognizing that change and evolution are inherent in ecosystem sustainability, ecosystem management avoids attempts to “freeze” ecosystems in a particular state or configuration.
  • Context and scale. Ecosystem processes operate over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, and their behavior at any given location is greatly affected by surrounding systems. Thus, there is no single appropriate scale or time frame for management.
  • Humans as ecosystem components. Ecosystem management values the active role of humans in achieving sustainable management goals.
  • Adaptability and accountability. Ecosystem management acknowledges that current knowledge and paradigms of ecosystem function are provisional, incomplete and subject to change. Management approaches must be viewed as hypotheses to be tested by research and monitoring programs.

Pacific harbor seal. Photo © Nancy Sefton

Definitions of EBM

“The goal of EBM is to maintain the health of the whole as well as the parts. It acknowledges the connections among things.”
Pew Oceans Commission

“EBM looks at all the links among living and nonliving resources, rather than considering single issues in isolation…Instead of developing a management plan for one issue…EBM focuses on the multiple activities occurring within specific areas that are defined by ecosystem rather than political boundaries.”
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy

For the purpose of the OSPAR Convention, the ecosystem approach is defined as “the comprehensive integrated management of human activities based on the best available scientific knowledge about the ecosystem and its dynamics, in order to identify and take action on influences which are critical to the health of marine ecosystems, thereby achieving sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and maintenance of ecosystem integrity”.
OSPAR Commission for protecting and conserving the North-East Atlantic and its resources

“Ecosystem-based management (EBM) is intended to overcome the shortfalls of traditional, single-sector management. EBM is a comprehensive, integrated approach to managing people’s impacts on the ocean with the goal of sustaining healthy seafood, clean beaches, and other ocean benefits.”
Ecosystem-based Management Roadmap

“In ecosystem-based management, the associated human population and economic/social systems are seen as integral parts of the ecosystem. Most importantly, ecosystem-based management is concerned with the processes of change within living systems and sustaining the goods and services that healthy ecosystems produce. Ecosystem-based management is therefore designed and executed as an adaptive, learning-based process that applies the principles of the scientific method to the processes of management.”
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

“The ecosystem approach is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. Thus, the application of
the ecosystem approach will help to reach a balance of the three objectives of the Convention:
conservation, sustainable use, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out
of the utilization of genetic resources.”
Convention on Biological Diversity