The Eco-System based approach
Ecosystem-based management is currently a highly topical issue and is being widely discussed in the context of fisheries management. Evidence of this is provided by the prominence being given to ecosystem-based management in the European Commission's current review of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Marine fisheries are one of the remaining examples of human endeavour involving the direct exploitation of wild animal populations. Fisheries are dependent on the productivity of the ecosystem, and fisheries have an effect on, and are affected by, the supporting ecosystem of the target species. It, therefore, follows that prudent and responsible fisheries management should take account of the profound interactions between fisheries and their supporting ecosystem.
The phrase 'Ecosystem Approach' was first coined in the early 80s, but found formal acceptance at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 where it became an underpinning concept of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and was later described as:
'a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way.'
In the fisheries context, a variety of interpretations of the ecosystem-based approach have been developed. For example, the FAO Fisheries Atlas, in its section on 'Basic Principles of Ecosystem Management', states:
'The overarching principles of ecosystem-based management of fisheries.....aim to ensure that, despite variability, uncertainty and likely natural changes in the ecosystem, the capacity of the aquatic ecosystems to produce food, revenues, employment and, more generally, other essential services and livelihood, is maintained indefinitely for the benefit of the present and future cater both for human as well as ecosystem well-being. This implies conservation of ecosystem structures, processes and interactions through sustainable use. This implies consideration of a range of frequently conflicting objectives and the needed consensus may not be achievable without equitable distribution of benefits.'
This definition is useful in demonstrating that ecosystem-based management is not about managing or manipulating ecosystem processes, something that is clearly beyond our abilities. Rather, ecosystem-based management is concerned with ensuring that fishery management decisions do not adversely affect the ecosystem function and productivity, so that harvesting of target stocks (and resultant economic benefits) is sustainable in the long-term. Traditional systems of management, which have tended to focus on individual stocks or species, have not achieved this objective and consequently the economic activity that the ecosystem supports has become compromised.
2. Implementing an ecosystem-based approach for fisheries
While a range of different interpretations of the ecosystem-based approach exist, there is considerable consensus on its main principles.
Ecosystem identification
Ecosystems appropriate for fisheries management will have to be defined on the basis of the main physical, biological, and human-dependency relationships. In European waters, it is likely to be appropriate to identify a nested series of ecosystems; at regional, national and district scales.
Objectives for fisheries management should have regard to local and national needs, and management should be decentralised to the maximum extent possible
A nested structure for fisheries management could include fairly large-scale Regional Seas (e.g. the North Sea), for which integrated management plans would be developed by Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) and serve as the basis for centralised decision-taking. Over time, the responsibility of RACs could develop to take on more of the decision-making role. These large regions could be subdivided nationally, and locally, where the local districts could serve as the basis for devolved management of inshore waters.
Ecosystems should be managed for their long-term benefits
Management should be directed towards restoring fish stocks to levels capable of delivering optimal yields over the long-term without compromising other species or habitats. It should also aim to support the maintenance of ecological processes, and the other products and benefits, including biodiversity, provided by the ecosystem.
Incentives should be realigned to support the aims of the ecosystem based approach
There needs to be a re-direction of incentives and financial support mechanisms from those aimed at increasing fishing efficiency to ones which promote the restoration of fish stocks to optimal levels of yield, and which support responsible fishing practice in sensitive marine areas, e.g. reducing the bycatch of target and non-target species.
Information necessary to implement the ecosystem-based approach should be made available
Managing ecosystems effectively, requires knowing how they function, and on being able to predict, with some reliability, their productive capacity and the consequences of management actions. Programmes of data collection will need to be continued, developed and refined to provide this information. The resultant information should be made readily accessible to fisheries managers and other users of the sea.
Where information is insufficient 'adaptive management' and precautionary' approaches should be followed
Notwithstanding the need to develop a strong information base, for the foreseeable future management decisions will have to be taken on the basis of partial information. Adaptive management is a process whereby the best decisions are made on the information available, where the outcome of these decisions is monitored, and where management decisions are altered if the outcome falls short of what was intended. If there is a reasonable likelihood that an activity will cause harm to fish stocks or the marine environment, the Precautionary Principle should be applied and measures taken to exert effective control over that activity.
3. Conclusions
A fully comprehensive ecosystem-based approach would require us to take account of all the interactions the target fish stock has with predators, competitors and prey species; the effects of weather and climate; the interactions between fish and habitat; the effects of fishing on species and habitat; and so on.
Clearly, such complete understanding of ecosystems is unlikely to be achieved, and there is a need for pragmatism. We should be clear that ecosystem-based management is not an instant replacement for traditional fisheries management - rather it should be seen as an evolution of the existing systems.
Therefore, progress towards the goal is likely to be made in an incremental way rather than overnight and it is possible to identify the steps towards, and desirable characteristics of, ecosystem-based fisheries management, including:
  1. the identification of the relevant ecosystems, and their boundaries and characteristics;
  2. the agreement of management objectives for each ecosystem. These should encompass wider ecosystem factors and not just the target stock, and all stakeholder groups should be involved in their development;
  3. long-term management objectives should be developed as well as short to medium-term objectives;
  4. the establishment of sustainability indicators (including reference points, targets and limits) and the accompanying monitoring;
  5. a decentralised regional approach to fisheries management in EU waters should be adopted enabling management measures to be taken that are appropriate to biologically distinct areas. These could include technical measures, spatial management (including closed areas), effort-related controls and systems of access rights;
  6. their should be better tailoring of research and information provision to support the ecosystem approach, including better knowledge of ecosystem interactions, and of fishing-related impacts, and also improved monitoring bycatch and discards to include information of non-commercial bycatch;
  7. application of Adaptive Management and the Precautionary Principle given the degree of uncertainty and dynamics of the ecosystem;
  8. an effective enforcement capability.
  9. Furthermore, fisheries management should not be seen in isolation from the wider management of the marine environment. Over time, fisheries management will need to become much better integrated with other sectors of marine management.


Further Reading
Alaska Sea Grant. 1999. Ecosystem approaches for fisheries management. 16th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium. AK-SG-99-01. Fairbanks, AK. 738 pp.
Baird, S.F. 1873. Report on the condition of the sea fisheries of the south coast of New England in 1871 and 1872. Report of the United States Fish Commission, vol 1. GPO, Washington, D.C.
Brodziak, J.K.T. and J.S. Link. 2001 Ecosystem Management: What is it and how can we do it? Bull. Mar, Sci. In press.
Christensen, N.L. and 12 others. 1996. The report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the scientific basis for ecosystem management. Ecological Applications 6: 665-691.
ESA (Ecological Society of America). 1998. Ecosystem management for sustainable marine fisheries. Ecological Applications, Volume 8, Supplement 1.
Hall, S.J. 1999. The effects of fishing on marine ecosystems and communities. Blackwell Science, Oxford, England.
Hannah, S.S. 1998. Institutions for marine ecosystems: economic incentives and fishery management. Ecol. Appl. 8:S170-S174.
Jennings, S., M.J. Kaiser and J.D. Reynolds. 2001. Marine Fisheries Ecology. Blackwell Science, Oxford, England.
Jennings, S. and M.J. Kaiser. 1998. The effects of fishing on marine ecosystems. Advances in Marine Biology 34: 201-352.
Kaiser, M.J. and S.J. de Groot. 2000. Effects of fishing on non-target species and habitats. Biological, conservation and socio-economic issues. Blackwell Science, Oxford, England.
Larkin, P.A. 1996. Concepts and issues in marine ecosystem management. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 6: 139-164.
See also
Convention on Biological Diversity - Ecosystem Approach -
Ecosystem based fishery management: a report to Congress by the Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel, 1998