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What Types of Challenges do MEBM Projects Encounter?

Scientific Complexity and Uncertainty

Managing at an Ecosystem Scale – Many projects found it difficult to incorporate complexity and large-scale dynamics into their efforts. Scientific complexity and uncertainty increases as management shifts to an ecosystem scale. Marine stressors can be global in origin, such as climate change, or originate outside of the management area, such as land-based pollution. Establishing cause-and-effect relationships between human activities and ecosystem health becomes increasingly challenging as the scope of the system expands.

Managing at an Ecosystem Scale

  • The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park faced challenges in identifying the complex and interrelated ways that climate change, fishing, polluted run-off and tourism threaten the reef.
  • A dynamic and diverse ecosystem complicated the Galapagos Marine Reserve’s efforts to design a marine zoning scheme, which fueled conflict and required decisions to be made without complete information.
  • At the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, problems in the ecosystem were not well documented or quantified, which challenged attempts to discern their root causes and generate buy-in from the necessary parties to change human activities.
  • The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program found it difficult to set overall direction for the program because it focused on a large ecosystem that spans two states and experienced difficulty in connecting upstream inputs of nutrients and pollutants to downstream effects.
Measuring Progress By measuring progress and identifying what works and what does not, initiatives maintained the enthusiasm and support of their participants. Doing so, however, was challenging. Gaps in information and scientific uncertainty often confronted initiatives. In addition, biological timeframes are long. Impacts can take years to become apparent.

Measuring Progress

  • The San Juan Initiative was challenged by a lack of baseline data, which posed a problem to determining the initiative’s success and presenting a clear picture of whether ecosystem functions were improving or declining.
  • Monitoring and evaluating the performance of the Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative was expensive and time-consuming, and hindered efforts to establish objective measures to measure progress.
  • Although the Albermarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program included a strong monitoring component, it struggled to separate its impact on the ecosystem from other actions, such as changes to fishery regulations.

Competing Interests

Active Opposition from Stakeholders or User Groups – Many initiatives faced challenges in resolving the competing interests of multiple entrenched and powerful user groups, in particular fishermen. 

Active Opposition from Stakeholders or User Groups

  • At the Mafia Island Marine Park, fishermen opposed management actions and some refused to observe certain prohibitions on fishing.
  • Creation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was opposed by fishermen and some local residents, who protested against federal involvement in the Keys and the imposition of regulations.
  • After 30 years in existence, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park continued to face active opposition from certain fishermen who disagreed with its conservation strategies.
Lack of Engagement – In other cases, the inability of the initiatives to resolve competing interests led to a lack of engagement with pre-existing institutions or user groups.

Lack of Engagement

Jurisdictional Complexity

Intergovernmental Relationships – Achieving coordinated management was challenging for MEBM initiatives because they often operated in a complex jurisdictional seascape. Multiple agencies possessed responsibility for resource management but often had different policies, priorities and cultures.

Intergovernmental Relationships

  • As with other national estuary programs, the Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program worked through partnerships with multiple federal and state agencies, which had many other priorities, some of which did not overlap, as well as their own policies and procedures.
  • The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary operated in a complex multi-jurisdictional environment, where it manages a resource that overlaps with the jurisdictions of multiple state and federal agencies, as well as Native American tribal governments.
Multinational Dynamics – Issues associated with jurisdictional complexity are compounded when ecosystems and key resources cross national borders. Legal structures, cultures and political possibilities varied among nations involved in MEBM projects.  At times, these simply added layers of procedure that had to be navigated in order to carry out initiative activities.

Multinational Dynamics

  • In the Georgia Basin-Puget Sound initiatives, the American and Canadian resource agencies operated by different rules and traditions, particularly with respect to sharing information and public processes, which created challenges to working across national boundaries.
  • In the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands agreed to work toward common goals, which proved challenging because each nation maintained its own authorities and legal structures to manage the common resource.

Lack of a Shared Vision

Conflict over Objectives A shared vision can serve as a guidepost, establishing agreement on how the participants view the future and what they hope to achieve. When participants disagreed on the role or objectives of an initiative or had aspirations that conflicted, creating a shared vision was challenging.

Conflict over Objectives

  • Although a community group successfully petitioned a Maine agency to begin the Taunton Bay Ecosystem-Based Management initiative, its vision for the bay was not shared among all intended participants, slowing actions to implement the program’s management plan.  
  • The Narragansett Bay National Estuary Program was challenged to define the initiative and set it apart from many local and regional conservation efforts in the region. Developing buy-in from Massachusetts, which was responsible for the upstream portion of the estuary, was also challenging.
  • Organizers framed the Port Orford, Oregon Community Stewardship Area to be familiar to local community members, eschewing mention of EBM in favor of the phrase land-sea connection, but some fishermen remained suspicious or confused about the initiative’s intentions and goals.

Limited Resources and Authority

Lack of Funding – A lack of funding was a common constraint on initiatives. It limited their scope, scale or activities, forcing them in some cases to ratchet downward their aspirations. 

Lack of Funding

  • Funding and other constraints posed a challenge to the San Juan Initiative, and were dealt with by the participants choosing to carefully limit the scope of the effort.
  • Limited and unsustainable grant monies forced the Elkhorn Slough Tidal Wetland Project to focus on its top priority of addressing the loss of salt marsh habitat.
  • Deep cuts in funding forced the Gulf of Maine Council to discontinue nearly half of its contracts, downscale its efforts, and re-evaluate how to operate with maximum efficiency.
Insufficient Technical Expertise – Limited technical expertise challenged the capability of initiatives to collect, synthesize or analyze important data.

Insufficient Technical Expertise

  • The Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative (Palau) experienced difficulties establishing links between human activities and ecological responses because of a lack of local technical capability on the island. The island’s remote location also hampered efforts to attract external scientists.
  • A limited pool of trained, professional experts in Mexico slowed progress of the Gulf of California, Mexico Shrimp Fisheries Project and limited its options. The project worked with institutional partners that did not always understand or have the capacity to process scientific information.
Limited Authority – With limited or no legal authority or jurisdiction, many initiatives had to align their goals with the priorities of agencies with jurisdiction over the resource. Rather than being able to take direct steps to require positive actions or constrain negative activities, initiatives had to encourage or enable other parties to take actions.

Limited Authority

  • Because the Albermarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program lacked the authority to mobilize state agency resources, it periodically had to focus on re-engaging the states in EBM while recognizing that state agencies have specific missions that limit what they can do.
  • Although some participants in the Elkhorn Slough Tidal Wetland Project have authority over the land within the project area, no single entity has the authority to authorize large-scale restoration projects, one factor that forced the program to constrain its scope.
  • The Northwest Straits Commission overcame its lack of authority by using small grants to incentivize autonomous, locally-based Marine Resources Committees to work on local projects that also accomplish the commission’s broader, ecosystem-focused goals.


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),"