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How Are MEBM Initiatives Governed?

Structures That Enable Key Functions to be Carried Out

Leadership Bodies and Management Teams – Many initiatives have a separate leadership or policy making body comprised of elected officials or agency heads who have statutory or electoral authority to make decisions. At times, having this distinct unit helps insulate scientific discussion from the more value-based decision making. In most places, the leadership body oversees a management team that consists of agency staff who are more engaged in the day-to-day operations of the initiatives.

Leadership Bodies and Management Teams

  • For example, the Chesapeake Bay Program is directed by an Executive Council that includes the governors of the participating states and the EPA Administrator. The Council is distinct from yet superordinate to a Management Board, consisting of more than 25 staff members from involved federal and state agencies.
  • In the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation, a Governmental Council is made up of high-level ministers from each participating nation. The Council meets every three to four years to provide overarching political leadership for the Cooperation. The Council oversees the operations of the Wadden Sea Board, a group of government officials that implement the Strategy, oversee operational and advisory bodies, and secure relations with key stakeholders. A senior government official appointed by the Council chairs the Board; the position rotates between the three participating countries.
  • At a much smaller scale, the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team is established as a non-profit organization with a governing Board of Directors, which oversees an administrative staff and is advised by a Community Advisory Board. To address scientific questions, POORT carries out research partnerships with state agencies, The Nature Conservancy and Oregon State University.
Advisory Bodies – Most MEBM initiatives use a variety of advisory committees to provide expertise and advice to the initiative. Many use technical or scientific committees. Some have separate bodies through which stakeholder groups develop understanding and provide advice. Others provide a mechanism by which tribes or first nations provide input in an appropriate government-to-government relationship. All help create a process that generates advice to those with decision making authority.

Advisory Bodies

  • The Chesapeake Bay Program employs a number of advisory committees, including a Citizens Advisory Committee, a Science and Technical Advisory Committee and a Local Government Advisory Committee. All are advisory to the Executive Council and the Management Board.
  • In developing the network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) under the California Marine Life Protection Act, a set of five Regional Stakeholder Groups and Science Advisory Teams evaluated existing MPAs and developed proposals for new areas in their region. These advisory bodies ultimately provided input to a Blue Ribbon Task Force that made recommendations to the Director of the California Department of Fish and Game.
  • At the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, decisions made by the Sanctuary Manager are informed by a stakeholder-based Sanctuary Advisory Committee and an Intergovernmental Policy Council that involves the Sanctuary, the State of Washington and four area tribes in a regional forum to exchange information, coordinate policies, and develop recommendations for resource management within the sanctuary.
Working Groups or Issue Teams – Ultimately, much of the work of the initiatives is carried out by teams or work groups that typically involve staff from different member groups along with other experts. These groups often conduct research, develop plan elements or implement projects.

Working Groups or Issue Teams

  • For the Chesapeake Bay Program, a set of Goal Implementation Teams implements agency-based and cross-agency programs. These include teams on Sustainable Fisheries, Vital Habitats, Water Quality, Watersheds, Stewardship, and Partnering/Leadership.
  • Priority Issue Teams are a critical piece of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. PITs have included groups working on Water Quality, Environmental Education, Nutrient Impacts, Habitat Conservation, Ecosystems Integration/Assessment and Coastal Community Resilience. An Alliance Coordination Team serves as a bridge between the Alliance’s leadership team and the PITs. Coordination Team members participate in Priority Issue Team meetings and present updates about progress to leadership.

Different Scales of Governance

Community-Based – Some MEBM initiatives have developed organically from sub-state, community sources. These initiatives are ultimately governed by community-level structures, often with agreements that define their relationships with government agencies.


  • Concerned that Oregon’s state-wide fisheries assessments did not provide adequate information about local fish stocks, members of the Port Orford fishing community started the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team to collect local scientific information to incorporate into local management strategies.
  • Under Chile’s 1991 Fishing and Aquaculture Law, the fisherman’s union in Caleta El Quisco has legal rights to manage and regulate its own Management Exploitation Area (MEA). To create an MEA, Chilean fishing organizations partner with marine biologists to develop fishery management plans that are then approved and monitored by the Chilean Fisheries Undersecretary. While national law enabled the initiative, community interests govern it subject to approval by the federal agency.
State or Provincial – A number of MEBM efforts have been initiated and defined at the state- or provincial-level. State or provincial law has codified some efforts; others remain gubernatorial priorities or initiatives.

State or Provincial

  • The California Ocean Protection Council was established in 2004 by the California Ocean Protection Act to better coordinate the formerly piece-meal governance of California coasts and state waters, and to help the state transition to an ecosystem-based management approach. Current priorities of the Council focus on six areas of work: governance, research and mapping, ocean and coastal water quality, physical processes and habitat structure, ocean and coastal ecosystems, and education and outreach.
  • The Massachusetts Ocean Management Initiative evolved out of an Ocean Management Task Force, which was launched in 2003 and charged with examining evolving ocean uses and developing a comprehensive approach to manage ocean resources. The Task Force released its recommendations in a 2004 report entitled, Waves of Change. The effort developed the foundation for mapping and planning activities and passage of the Massachusetts Oceans Act in May 2008. This state initiative led to the adoption in December 2009 of the nation’s first comprehensive ocean zoning plan to manage development in state waters.
Regional – Since MEBM initiatives seek to align political boundaries with ecologically-relevant boundaries, many initiatives are regional in scope. Regional initiatives require collaborative governance arrangements as they involve multiple state or local jurisdictions.


  • The Chesapeake Bay Program is a voluntary regional partnership between Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D. C., and is one of the longest-standing MEBM efforts in the U.S. While a significant leadership role is played by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, governance of the program requires multi-state agreements and the political concurrence of multiple governors.
  • Support from governors of the five Gulf Coast states was critical to creation of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. By profiling issues associated with the Gulf of Mexico, the governors hoped that a state-led initiative would bring more federal resources to the previously overlooked region. While a set of agreements governs the alliance, ultimately its power flows from the endorsement and commitment of the state governors.
  • Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative (ESSIM), a pilot project under Canada’s Ocean Act, seeks to coordinate activity among stakeholders, federal and provincial officials, and jurisdictional agencies within a 325,000 square kilometer ecological region. Led by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the initiative integrates various ecological and socio-political boundaries.
National – Many MEBM initiatives have been initiated by national governments, are governed by federal law, and managed by employees from federal agencies. While most incorporate local-level considerations in management, the national government and its agencies are the ultimate source of authority and direction for the initiatives.


  • The federal government of the Bahamas initiated a partnership to establish the Bahamas Marine Reserve Network involving government agencies, NGOs and stakeholders. With the goal of protecting at least 20% of near-shore marine resources by 2012, so far the effort has proposed locations for five marine reserves and designated one.
  • While the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is subnational in geographic scale, the park was created by a 1975 federal act and is co-managed by the national and provincial governments. GBRMP has made extensive use of zoning to regulate activity within the park’s boundaries.
  • U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries (including Gray’s Reef, and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale) are a system of 14 protected areas designated to protect marine areas with significant natural and cultural features. Each functions under the guidance of the federal law that created them, the policies of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the input of a regionally-based sanctuary advisory council that incorporates local objectives and concerns.
Transnational – A number of MEBM initiatives integrate different nations into a management framework focused on a particular ecological region. They seemingly are the ultimate statement of an ecosystem approach, since they clearly go beyond political boundaries to focus management on ecological boundaries. On the other hand, transnational institutions are inherently complex entities to govern.


Different Types of Authorities

Ad Hoc – Some initiatives develop organically, as individuals or organizations seek to take action. These efforts have no formal authorizing framework but rather rely on agreements made among the parties regarding goals and operating procedures. While authority is an important resource for changing behavior, it does not follow that initiatives that lack authority are ineffective. Indeed, in some places, voluntary information-sharing and coordination arrangements may be just as influential as mandated rules.

Ad Hoc

  • Port Orford Ocean Resource Team operates as an independent non-profit with no management or regulatory authority. However, the organization developed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to collaborate on managing a Community Stewardship Area.
  • The San Juan Initiative was established by individuals and organizations concerned about marine conservation in Washington state’s San Juan Islands. Through more than 25 public workshops to engage landowners, real estate and construction industry professionals and the general public, the initiative assessed the effectiveness of programs aimed at shoreline protection and developed recommendations to the County Council. The Initiative disbanded in 2009 after their recommendations were unanimously supported by the Council and endorsed by participating federal and state agencies.
Authorized, Advisory Only – In a number of MEBM initiatives, government laws, officials or agencies have played an important role in triggering action. However, the initiatives lack regulatory authority and can only advise or enable the actions of others.

Authorized, Advisory Only

  • National Estuary Programs (such as Albemarle-Pamlico and Narragansett Bay) operate under a federal charge to work collaboratively to draft and implement estuary management plans. NEPs do not have regulatory authority, but instead build partnerships between policy makers, grassroots organizations and stakeholders to help bring in resources, gather scientific information, and implement management activities on an ecosystem scale.
  • The European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy established a network of seven Regional Advisory Councils, including the Baltic Sea Regional Advisory Council, to offer stakeholders’ input on EU fisheries regulations. With no authority to impose its actions on member nations, the Councils make recommendations that are implemented by member governments. In the case of the Baltic Sea Council, representatives from the commercial fishing industry make up two-thirds of the Council’s members.
Authorized, With Authority – A final set of initiatives has been authorized by law or other policy, and the initiatives have been granted the authority to act on behalf of the governments.

Authorized, With Authority

  • Ecuador’s 1998 “Special Law” established boundaries for the Galapagos Marine Reserve and authorized the Galapagos National Park Service to manage and regulate activity within the reserve. The Special Law also mandates community participation in decisions affecting the Reserve.
  • The Mexican government granted dive fishermen in Puerto Peñasco exclusive rights and management authority over their traditional rock scallop fishing grounds. Fishermen partnered with the non-profit CEDO (El Centro de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos) and the University of Arizona to develop management plans and monitor success.
  • Managers of all National Marine Sanctuaries have the authority to regulate access, fishing and recreational activity within a Sanctuary’s boundaries. For example, as part of the federal-state co-management agreement for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers carry out the enforcement of regulations.

This material should be cited as: "Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, Marine Ecosystem-Based Management in Practice (Ann Arbor MI: School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, June 2012),"