BE Pulse #4: Embracing an ecosystem approach
12 07 2021

Life Below Mangrove Roots, Indonesia. Credit: Brook Peterson/Ocean Image Bank

Adopting an “ecosystem approach” to managing natural assets is often cited by scientists, NGOs, policymakers and others as a means of conserving and benefitting from shared natural resources such as fisheries and coral reefs sustainably. But what does it mean to adopt an ecosystem approach? In our latest edition of Blue Economy Pulse we take a look at some recent developments in the blue economy through the lens of an ecosystem approach.

“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[1].”

To operationalise the principles of the ecosystem approach, the Convention on Biological Diversity proposes the following five points should be considered.

Focus on the relationships and processes within an ecosystem

80% of marine and coastal pollution originates on land, but there are very few, if any, truly effective governance mechanisms that manage land-ocean interactions”, according to the lead author of a new study from UNEP which calls for an urgent shift in land-sea governance. Agriculture, ports and harbours, and aquaculture create the most detrimental impacts on coastal resources, and biodiversity is the coastal resource which is most impacted by these, followed closely by fisheries and coastal habitats. In turn, all sectors of the blue economy are vulnerable to changes in coastal resources, particularly fishing, aquaculture and tourism. What is clear from these cascading and interlinked effects is that a sustainable blue economy cannot be achieved unless the negative impacts of land-based activities on coastal resources are addressed.

Noting that ecosystem-based management should be a guiding principle of coastal resource governance, the report identifies several measures that can be taken to strengthen land-sea governance, including filling knowledge gaps, targeted capacity development and monitoring and evaluation processes that focus on impact pathways, rather than the condition of natural assets. “Coastal governance should focus on the pathways connecting multiple land-based activities to coastal resources and should not be constrained by arbitrary boundaries such as legal or administrative ones that disconnect causes from effects and frustrate coordinated governance responses”.

Recognising this crucial link between coastal water quality and sustainable fisheries, livelihoods and tourism, Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency has begun implementing new environmental standards for ambient marine water and sediment in protected areas and in public areas. The new measures strengthen existing environmental assessment, licencing and inspection procedures for development projects and industrial establishments and complement the Agency’s research programme on marine water quality and its early-warning monitoring system for red tides and algal blooms. “These standards are now considered the first of their kind in the region” noted the Environment Agency’s Secretary-General.

Improving water quality is the right thing to do and is part of our commitment to be a steward of the environment.” The Assistant Director of environmental planning for the Port of Long Beach made his remarks upon releasing the results of the Port’s latest five-year biological survey, which reflect the highest diversity yet recorded over the past two decades, including a doubling of kelp coverage since the previous survey and eelgrass beds at new depths. Situated downstream from Los Angeles with its attendant pollution flows, both the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles implemented a series of measures in 2009 to improve water and sediment quality. These included stormwater treatment and pretreatment technologies to prevent waste from entering the harbours; best practices for all port operators to prevent debris from entering the water; guidance for container ships on waste management; and connecting ships to power on shore, allowing them to turn off their engines and reduce particulate matter pollution entering the harbours.

Enhance benefit-sharing

The ecosystem approach seeks to benefit those stakeholders responsible for the production and management of natural resources. This in turn requires capacity building, amongst other activities, particularly for local communities managing biodiversity.

On 21st June the Government of Canada marked World Hydrography Day by announcing new financial support for women to participate equitably in the field of hydrography and to assume more leadership roles within the international hydrographic community. The UK Hydrographic Office marked this year’s theme, “100 years of international cooperation in hydrography”, with a short video charting the organisation’s 140 international collaborations to date and its programmes to coordinate seabed mapping and capacity building globally. This illustrious history of international collaboration is set to continue growing as the UK Hydrographic Office recently announced a new partnership with the Nippon Foundation - GEBCO Seabed 2030 project and Teledyne Caris, calling on all parties to support the ambitious goal to map the 80% of the world’s ocean that remains unmapped by 2030.

Canada’s Minister of Fisheries also announced in June that it will invest $300 million over two years in its small craft harbours, the heart of Canada’s coastal communities. This follows ongoing consultation undertaken by the Government with municipalities and stakeholders to identify where funding can best enhance local communities. Harbour communities are also the target for new funding in Scotland, as part of three challenge funds being launched by Crown Estate Scotland for locally-led partnerships and innovation.

Use adaptive management practices

Ecosystem management needs to recognize the diversity of social and cultural factors affecting natural-resource use and be flexible in policy-making and implementation.

“Our future depends on the creation of just, agile and highly integrated governance for our rapidly changing oceans and coasts,” noted a member of the Expert Working Group which oversaw the production of a new ten-year strategy for Sustainable Oceans and Coasts in Australia by the Australian Academy of Science. The strategy calls for better coordination and integration across all levels of government, promoting local community and First Peoples’ knowledge and practices into management of ocean and coastal resources, and connecting across knowledge systems.

Manage at the appropriate scale, decentralising to the lowest level as appropriate

Under an ecosystem approach, stakeholders should have both the opportunity and the capacity to take responsibility, supported by enabling policy and legislative frameworks. In some areas of management, transboundary cooperation or cooperation at global levels are called for.

“Mai Ka Po Mai is a groundbreaking document…. which demonstrates that providing Native Hawaiian voices equal footing with federal and state entities in a complex management structure can lead to the successful stewardship of our most precious natural and cultural resources,” said the CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs on the new stewardship approach for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

Mai Ka Po Mai, which was developed over a decade of continuous consultations with the Native Hawaiian community, articulates values, principles and traditional knowledge to guide the management of protected areas, alongside federal and state agency mandates and missions.

Successful cooperation at the global scale was celebrated in a June feature on the Nauru agreement, under which eight Pacific large ocean nations coordinated to agree a shared position vis-à-vis the distant water fishing fleets and subsequently devised a Vessel Trading Scheme which ensures all eight nations benefit equitably from the region’s rich fishery resources. This inspiring example of international cooperation which places the needs of the regional ecosystem first could be replicated in other ocean basins to drive sustainable activities and equitable benefit-sharing.

Ensure intersectoral cooperation

Management of natural resources, according to the ecosystem approach, calls for increased intersectoral communication and cooperation at a range of levels.

This was recognised by the outgoing Director General for Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, during the inauguration of a new Blue Economy Private Sector Coordinating Group, who noted that “everything about the blue economy is about integration and collaboration between sectors, government and communities, and collaboration between government and private sector.”

Fourteen partners from academia, industry and government have come together in Cyprus to create a “holistic ecosystem of AI systems” designed to create a shared technological map that will make the country’s seas safer and cleaner whilst supporting sustainable development of maritime industries. And a spokesperson for one of the world’s largest shipping companies noted recently that the whole industry ecosystem needs to mobilise around the challenge of how to decarbonise.

Marine spatial planning in the European Union requires authorities to apply an ecosystem approach to marine planning, and in the absence of rules on how to do this, the NGO Birdlife has drafted guidance for planners, to help them avoid damaging sensitive marine environments or processes, and to strengthen ocean resilience in the context of climate change.

Globally an ecosystem approach to ocean stewardship would see the implementation of significant networks of marine protected areas across the world’s ocean, combined with responsible, equitable and sustainable use of the remaining areas. With Ireland just the latest country to contemplate legislation to protect 30% of its 0.9 million sq km exclusive economic zone and Barbados joining Seychelles in championing marine protected areas across the Commonwealth countries, which collectively steward over a third of the world’s coastal waters, progress on the first of these goals is ever apparent. The Pacific Islands’ Nauru Agreement and its associated governance mechanisms, and the recent entry into force, sooner than expected, of the first multilateral agreement of its kind to take a legally binding, precautionary approach to protect an area, the Central Arctic Ocean, from commercial fishing, demonstrate how tremendous progress on sustainable and equitable use of the ocean can be made, when nations come together.

These examples illustrate ecosystem approaches that take a systemic view of ocean health and embrace collaboration, whilst being inclusive and adaptive. Our new report on the Blue Economy in Practice: Raising Lives and Livelihoods suggests blue economy approaches can RAISE the quality of human and marine life and livelihoods when they are Regenerative, Adaptive, Inclusive, Sustainable and Evidence-led, principles which reflect and reinforce an ecosystem approach.

[1] Convention on Biological Diversity,

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