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A Partnership of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, Brown University and Duke University

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What Factors Facilitate MEBM Projects?

A Special Place or Issue of Concern

Strong Sense of Place – A strong sense of place motivated participation in many MEBM projects, enabling participants to feel committed and work toward shared goals.

Strong Sense of Place

  • The Port Orford, Oregon Community Stewardship Area benefited from the intimate connection to the marine environment that was shared among the individuals in this small, remote community, where fishing provided the largest source of jobs. A threat to the fishery was of common concern.
  • The Taunton Bay Ecosystem-Based Management Project was advanced through a partnership between Maine agency officials and a local citizens group that built on the members’ passion and concern for Taunton Bay to do much of the legwork in developing new restrictions on mussel and urchin harvesting.
  • Most members of National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Councils indicated that, while officially representing designated user interests, their involvement was nonetheless primarily motivated because of personal connections to and concern for their particular Sanctuary.
Iconic Places – Other initiatives benefited from their focus on geographies or resources that were iconic, which enabled them to tap into national or international currents of support.

Iconic Places

  • A series of vessel groundings in the Florida Keys damaged large sections of coral reef and sparked national concern, which led to bipartisan support in Congress to establish the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
  • The Galapagos Marine Reserve benefited from international concern for the ecosystem that had been described in Charles Darwin’s famous research, which generated political support and funding from international conservation organizations.
  • The Great Barrier Reef was recognized as a World Heritage Site and designated by the Australian Parliament as a matter of national environmental significance.

Formalized Programs and Authorities

Legal Structures – In a number of places, laws provided an institutional framework that sanctioned or encouraged MEBM approaches to resource management and changed the expectations or responsibilities of agencies.

Legal Structures

  • The 1999 California Marine Life Protection Act directed the California Department of Fish and Game to reevaluate and redesign California’s system of marine protected areas to protect the state’s marine life and habitats, marine ecosystems, and marine natural heritage.  While the MLPA process faced serious early challenges, a public/private partnership focused on implementation developed a system of MPAs covering some 16% of state waters.
  • Passed in 2008, the Massachusetts Oceans Act required the state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs to develop an integrated ocean management plan to oversee development in state waters, balancing protection of natural resources with traditional and new uses including renewable energy development. The Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan was released at the end of December 2009.
  • The 1991 Chilean Fishing and Aquaculture Law sanctioned the MEBM approach in the fishing community of Caleta El Quisco. The law institutionalized an experimental approach to fisheries management, providing a pathway for fishermen’s syndicates to co-manage resources within designated exploitation areas.
  • The Gulf of California Shrimp Fisheries project received support from a sustainable fisheries and aquaculture law in Mexico that promoted a holistic view of fisheries management along with the consideration of environmental impacts.
Government-Required Plans – Government programs, such as the National Estuary Program and National Marine Sanctuary Program in the United States and the Integrated Management process in Canada, required agencies to create plans that incorporated MEBM approaches. The plans established priorities, developed objectives and enacted or recommended agreed-upon strategies.

Government-Required Plans

  • The Eastern Scotian Shelf was chosen as the first large ocean area in Canada to undergo an integrated management planning process that was required by new federal legislation and policy. The process aimed to achieve the sustainable management of the ocean area by engaging multiple levels of government, and relevant stakeholders and marine users.
  • As with other marine sanctuaries, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act required the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to develop an ecosystem-focused management plan with user groups and stakeholders, identify threats to the resource, set goals and objectives, and update the plan periodically.
  • A planning process involving federal, state, local and non-governmental entities established the Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program in accordance with the terms of the National Estuary Program, which was created by Congress to improve the health of the nation’s ailing estuaries. The goals and strategies of the Narragansett Bay program are periodically reassessed.
Ability to Zone and/or Restrict Behavior and Use – The ability to zone or issue regulations assisted several MEBM initiatives in working toward ecosystem protection goals by providing them with the authority to compel changes in human behavior.

Ability to Zone and/or Restrict Behavior and Use

  • The Colombia Seaflower Biosphere Reserve received the authority to implement five levels of zoning, ranging from the provision of minimal conditions to stringent rules that allowed entry into certain marine areas only for research and monitoring activities.
  • The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary prohibited boating, diving and fishing in certain areas of its five-tiered zoning scheme to achieve a balance between its goal of protecting the resource and allowing appropriate human uses.
  • The Sable Gully Marine Protected Area implemented a three-tiered zoning strategy that provided for varying levels of ecosystem protection based on conservation objectives and the ecological vulnerability of each zone. One zone was intended to be set-aside in a near-natural state.  
Staff with Deliverables and Responsibilities – While institutional structures provided authority or incentives, having paid staff associated with the initiatives often was critical to facilitating and sustaining progress. They executed strategies, generated and collected data, and delivered products that kept the initiatives alive.

Staff with Deliverables and Responsibilities

  • As with other national estuary programs, the half-dozen staff members who work at the Albermarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program executed strategies in the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan. Strategies included conducting demonstration projects, developing metrics to judge improvements in the ecosystem, and communicating with a variety of regional stakeholders.
  • The nine full-time staff members at the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary carried out the strategies in the sanctuary’s management plan. They produced educational materials, facilitated research, and enforced sanctuary regulations.
  • Staff members of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance were responsible for pushing forward work between meetings of the alliance’s priority issue teams, which were accountable for facilitating implementation of the alliance’s action plans.
  • Staff supporting the Northwest Straits Commission in Washington managed the process of awarding grant money to local committees. These communities then performed restoration and conservation projects, and assessed progress in meeting objectives.

Effective Process

Clear Goals – MEBM initiatives that were deliberate about how to structure and manage the process of working together were more likely to be successful.  For example, projects that established agreements that clarified goals and objectives helped establish or retain buy-in from participants.

Clear Goals

  • The Downeast Groundfish Initiative set a clear goal of restarting the once-productive groundfishery off the coast of Maine by supporting changes in fishery management and research.
  • Australia’s Marine Bioregional Planning initiative sought to designate a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas to conserve biodiversity. It segmented the process to create separate planning efforts in five regions, informed by their own bioregional profiles. 
  • The Philippines FISH Project created a clear objective of increasing fish stocks by 10 percent in four targeted implementation areas in the Philippines. Using new management, enforcement and educational strategies, they met this goal.
Allocation of Roles and Responsibilities – Processes that established a set of expectations about roles and responsibilities were more efficient and effective in taking action.

Allocation of Roles and Responsibilities

  • Federal and state officials co-managed the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary according to the terms of an explicit Memorandum of Understanding, which established clear roles in overseeing day-to-day activities as well as the establishment of long-term goals.
  • Responsibility for managing the day-to-day tasks of the Gulf of Maine Council rotated on an annual basis among the five participating American and Canadian jurisdictions.
  • Each of the five Gulf states in the Gulf of Mexico Alliance was responsible for leading work on a single issue area – often an issue of importance to that particular state. That freed each state from having to work on every issue with the same intensity and established clear roles and expectations.
Clarity of Standards and Operating Principles – Initiatives that established clear standards as to how they would operate were usually more effective in navigating particular conflicts over resource management decisions.

Clarity of Standards and Operating Principles

  • The Northwest Atlantic Fishing Organization adhered to a precautionary approach in ecosystem management, using the guideline to support closing certain vulnerable marine areas to bottom fishing.
  • The organizers of the Port Orford, Oregon Community Stewardship Area committed themselves to creating a sustainable fishery off the coast of this small community by informing management decisions with “the best science and local experiential knowledge.” They established clear operating principles that include concepts of ecosystem-based management and community-based fisheries management.
  • The community-based San Juan Initiative received a high degree of cooperation from land owners in the San Juan Islands of Washington state by stating that it would respect private property rights as it examined how to tackle the impacts of development on the near-shore environment.
Decision-Making Rules – MEBM initiatives that involved many groups and decision makers were aided by clarification of rules for making decisions.

Decision-Making Rules

  • The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s Advisory Council operated according to a charter specifying clear decision rules. When decisions were made by voting, negative votes and abstentions were noted. When decisions were made by general consensus, minority opinions were recorded. In both options, majority and minority views were communicated to the sanctuary manager.
  • The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources operated by written rules of procedure specifying that decisions on “matters of substance” should be reached through consensus, while other decisions could be made by a simple majority vote.
  • The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary established a 25-person working group that shaped the creation of a marine reserve near the Dry Tortugas islands. It used ground rules that required dissenters to explain how they would be hurt by specific proposals and then suggest alternatives. Members could not simply say “No” to a proposal.
Regularly-Scheduled Meetings with Clear Agendas and Expectations – Meetings were held often enough to retain collective memory, but not frequently enough to seem like a waste of time

Regularly-Scheduled Meetings with Clear Agendas and Expectations

  • Regular meetings allowed participants involved with the Elkhorn Slough Tidal Wetland Project to provide updates, discuss management decisions, and solicit perspectives of the communities early in the project’s development.
  • Regular conferences and meetings facilitated by the Gulf of Maine Council allowed the participants to take stock of where they were and where they needed to go.
  • As with other National Marine Sanctuaries, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary benefitted from Sanctuary Advisory Council meetings that engaged stakeholders and the public, and helped to establish and keep track of council work plans.
  • Regularly scheduled monthly meetings of the Northwest Straits Commission created a safe space for participants to discuss issues and concerns. The commission used the meetings to receive updates from locally-based Marine Resources Committees and identify ways to incentivize greater collaboration among the committees.

An Adaptive Learning Approach

Monitoring and Assessment – MEBM initiatives involve scientific complexity, uncertainty and social conflict. By establishing criteria and indicators to use in monitoring, initiatives were able to create a legitimate basis for evaluating and adapting their strategies.

Monitoring and Assessment

  • Monitoring of Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary’s Marine Protected Area network showed improvements in the ecosystem, and catalyzed support for additional actions.
  • By monitoring water quality and effects of marine zoning, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary collected data to determine whether changes in the ecosystem could be traced to interventions in the management plan, and whether changes should be made.
  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park used regular assessments to identify lessons that informed management decisions. One assessment prompted the marine park’s effort to rezone the marine area based on its conservation goals.
  • The locally-managed marine reserves of Velondraike, off the coast of Madagascar, began as an externally-introduced process, but the project was adopted by local residents, who manage and monitor the reserves in an arrangement that promotes learning.
Learning from Others – Some initiatives took the time to learn about the experiences of comparable groups to avoid pitfalls and build on their perceptions of a successful process. 

Learning from Others

  • Organizers of the Port Orford, Oregon Community Stewardship Area learned from the experiences of other groups, adopting and applying principles from the Stonington Fisheries Alliance of Maine. They also received technical support from other partners, including the Packard Foundation and Surfrider, who provided perspectives from their experiences with related efforts.
  • The World Wildlife Fund-initiated Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion Program included plans to catalogue and share success stories of sustainable livelihoods in the region, such as ecotourism, aquaculture and other community-managed resources.
  • The West Coast Governors’ Agreement facilitated workshops that featured practitioners sharing their knowledge and experiences.
External Evaluations – By tapping outside experts to provide an evaluation, several MEBM initiatives received fresh insights that led them to improve their relevancy and effectiveness.

External Evaluations

  • The Gulf of Maine Council hired an independent contractor to develop strategies that could evaluate the council’s activities and measure their short-term outcomes through a more rigorous assessment process.
  • An external evaluation identified successes and challenges regarding the Northwest Straits Commission in Washington state, and prompted the initiative to redefine its benchmarks to increase its relevancy to potential partners in the locally-based and autonomous Marine Resources Committees.
  • Following the recommendations of an external evaluation, the Wadden Sea Trilateral Cooperation updated its goals and governance structure to maintain relevancy to the participating nations and increase its effectiveness.

Commitment and Support

High-Level Political Leadership – High-level political leaders facilitated progress by acting as champions of the initiatives, staying invested in their success and compelling action from agencies. They kept individuals working on the goals and objectives of the initiatives.

High-Level Political Leadership

  • Spurred by Florida Governor Jeb Bush, all five of the Gulf state governors banded together to launch the Gulf of Mexico Alliance. They directed their staffs to work across borders and held them to the expectation that they achieve a series of clear objectives.
  • Two Congressmen from Florida, Representative Dante Fascell and Senator Bob Graham, sponsored legislation that created the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and forced action from government agencies to address the environmental problems in the Keys.
  • Two members of Congress from Washington state, Senator Patty Murray and Representative Jack Metcalf, ordered an evaluation of the declining marine conditions in northern Puget Sound, and developed the Northwest Straits Commission to address them. Murray, in particular, stayed invested and championed Congressional appropriations to continue funding the initiative.
Non-profit and Private Sector Champions – Partners in non-profit and private sectors sustained initiatives by providing additional resources and access to connections to a wider community.

Non-profit and Private Sector Champions

  • At the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the proximity of the Charles Darwin Research Station ensured that science would be given a strong voice in management and scientists affiliated with the station provided technical support to the initiative. Other organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, provided funding to create a management plan that incorporated stakeholder input. NGO pressure also helped catalyze support for action.
  • Students and faculty at the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific petitioned British Columbia to create the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve and they have operated it under permit as an outdoor classroom and research facility.
  • The San Juan Initiative received valuable support from a regional non-profit, Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, which helped to highlight the significance and importance of the initiative.
Dedicated, Energetic and Respected Individuals – In other cases, a few key individuals with passion and vision motivated and enlisted others to support the initiatives.

Dedicated, Energetic and Respected Individuals

  • Billy Causey, the first superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, stayed patient and open-minded as he led the outreach process during the early days of the sanctuary, even as he faced objections from opponents who hung him in effigy twice in the same day.
  • Kevin Ranker, a member of the county council in this Washington state community, provided leadership and support to the San Juan Initiative that was critical to its creation. Ranker excited participants and kept them engaged in the initiative.
  • The personal commitment and efforts of David Keeley, former director of the Maine State Planning Office, is credited by many involved for initiating discussions that led to establishment of the Gulf of Maine Council.

Availability of Critical Resources

Consistent Funding – Consistent funding sustained initiatives by allowing them to develop long-term plans with an expectation that money would be available to execute those plans. Initiatives often required a significant amount of funding to get started and sustain their efforts.

Consistent Funding

  • The Northwest Straits Commission received consistent funding through Congressional appropriations that allowed it to facilitate partnerships with state agencies, tribes, local governments, and non-governmental organizations.
  • The Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation received consistent funding from Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands that sustained the initiative during a period when political will to implement its recommendations began to wane.
  • An effort to establish protected areas in state waters, the California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative was underwritten by some $38 million in funding by a small set of philanthropic organizations, managed by the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation.
Compelling Data – By developing information on ecosystem health and the impact of their interventions, several initiatives demonstrated why they were needed as well as their effectiveness and value.

Compelling Data

  • By developing data on dissolved oxygen in the New England bay, Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program capitalized on political will to take action following a highly visible fish kill, leading to the passage of legislation to reduce nutrients in wastewater.
  • Ecological monitoring off the coast of Puerto Penasco, Mexico showed that mollusk stocks had recovered rapidly after the creation of marine reserves, and helped to ameliorate community concerns. 

A Focus on Manageable Tasks and Existing Structures

Assessments – Although most of the initiatives embraced a comprehensive ecosystem perspective and aspirations, many made strategic choices that helped facilitate progress.  For some, smaller, more manageable tasks enabled them to make progress by taking incremental steps. Some found assessments of conditions and problems to be a logical stepping-off point.


  • The Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem involving Angola, Namibia and South Africa conducted regional assessments to develop a shared understanding of the region’s environmental problems before moving to address deficiencies in management.
  • The Taunton Bay Study in Maine built scientific understanding by establishing and evaluating 23 ecosystem indicators, and beginning to map the bay. The assessment preceded the development of a management plan and community-based advisory group to review implementation of the plan.
  • The Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project, a large transboundary project involving China and South Korea, began with a diagnostic analysis that identified management deficiencies and shared environmental problems.
Pilot Projects – Many MEBM initiatives used pilot projects as a means of gaining traction. They chose to garner support by not tackling everything at once.  

Pilot Projects

  • The Colombia Seaflower Biosphere Reserve used pilot projects in shantytowns to demonstrate ways to improve sanitation, waste disposal, and construction practices.
  • As the partners in the Elkhorn Slough Tidal Wetland Project weighed strategies to restore the California estuary, they conducted experimental pilot projects to test specific tactics. They selected a smaller restoration option out of four alternatives because it was seen as feasible. The pilot is intended to inform future larger-scale restoration efforts.
Built on Existing Structures – While there is often a tendency for new initiatives to create new structures, several initiatives made progress by capitalizing on pre-existing networks, programs or structures, rather than trying to supplant or ignore them.

Built on Existing Structures

  • Although it is not regarded as a textbook MEBM initiative, the Chilean initiative in Caleta El Quisco capitalized on pre-existing local fishing cooperatives. By working through the cooperatives, the initiative began to make an impact.
  • Without any authority, the Gulf of Maine Council relied on the interests and abilities of its member agencies to take actions within their own jurisdictions and authorities.
  • The San Juan Initiative received the blessing of the local county council and worked with local government officials and members of the building trades to recommend improvements to building ordinances.
  • The Elkhorn Slough Tidal Wetland Project benefited from its proximity to world-class marine science research institutions in California. Local scientists provided significant contributions to discussions on ecosystem health and restoration strategies.

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),"