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European approaches can clarify key characteristics of ecosystem-based ocean management

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Gunnar Sander
Gunnar Sander


European approaches can clarify key characteristics of ecosystem-based ocean management The need for more integrated approaches to the management of oceans and coasts has been high on the international agenda since the Agenda 21 declaration (1992). Ecosystem-based management (EBM) – also labelled the ecosystem approach – emerged during the 1990s as a prominent answer to managing nature in bits and pieces by sectoral means. It has been embraced by many international instruments and organizations. However, practical implementation has been difficult; EBM has been abandoned or been referred to only as a principle. Instead, marine spatial planning and marine protected areas have received more attention, even though these instruments can only fulfill some of the tasks in EBM. Putting EBM into practice is complex, but has not been easier by the problems of defining the concept, also in legal terms. Reviewing different definitions, it is suggested that it would be fruitful to concentrate on the key characteristics of EBM that explain what it tries to integrate: The whole ecosystem is the object for management, with ambitions of achieving “good ecological status” or related terms. Thus, there is a need to understand and manage the cumulative impacts from all human uses upon this system. These tasks require broad mobilization across sectors and levels. To such a lean, essential understanding, a number of other principles may be added to get a more comprehensive definition. However, several of these principles have different origins than EBM and may be combined differently in different contexts. Internationally, Norway and the EU are in a peculiar position by putting EBM into practice. Norway has made non-statutory ocean management plans a routine since 2006. The EU member states fulfilled the first cycle of ocean plans in 2020, based on EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008). In both approaches, we find the key characteristics suggested: They define large marine ecosystems as the management objects, for which ecological qualities shall be ensured. This is operationalized in hierarchies of goals, objectives and indicators, preferably with associated threshold values. They undertake assessments of the state of the ecosystem compared to the goals, as explained by cumulative impacts from human activities. This is a basis for formulating programs of measures that address negative pressures, and frames for future management. The measures shall be implemented by the relevant sectors and levels of management. To ensure this, mechanisms for collaboration play an important role. The two approaches also shed light on other suggested principles for EBM, such as informing policy by science, and adaptive management operationalized by monitoring, evaluation and cycles of planning and decision-making. There are certain differences in how these key characteristics are performed, and more fundamental differences in approaches to transparency, public deliberation on ocean policies, and integration of broader sustainability issues. However, it is suggested that we can refer to a European model for EBM that underpins an essential understanding of what is EBM. Focusing on such key characteristics in future legal and policy development may facilitate the further use of EBM and leave more flexibility to different jurisdictions with different contexts to put the instrument into practice.   References: Sander, G. (2018a): Ecosystem-based ocean management. Chapter 2 in Implementation of ecosystem-based ocean management ( PhD thesis. Sander, G., Cochrane, S., Platjouw, F., Hjermann, D., Andersen, J. (2022): Two pathways to good environmental status. A comparison of EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Norwegian ocean management plans. NIVA report, in Norwegian with English summary, available at .