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Gulf of Maine Council

Case Authors

Amy Samples, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment was created in 1989 by an agreement among the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

State and provincial employees of natural resource agencies initiated the process to create the council at the sub-national level with a focus on the shoreline, seabed, waters and natural resources of the Gulf of Maine region.

Although declining stocks of cod and haddock focused attention on the Gulf of Maine, the council does not address commercial fishing and was not formed in response to the fisheries crisis. Avoiding a highly contentious issue that involves multiple regulatory bodies at the federal level allows the council retain the participation of its members and discuss common interests.

The council does not have regulatory or management authority. Instead, it provides a forum that creates dialogue among the state and provincial governments. It is a vehicle to improve management of the ecosystem by sharing information. Members are encouraged to participate in transboundary cooperation on the basis of shared ecosystem goals.

The council provides an example of a relatively mature, transboundary and large-scale marine ecosystem-based management initiative.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scale: Encompassing the ecosystem across political boundaries.
  • Collaboration: Development of common goals and the sharing of information.
  • Complexity: Recognition of a range of stressors.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Gulf of Maine Council is “to maintain and enhance environmental quality in the Gulf of Maine to allow for sustainable resource use by existing and future generations.”


The council has established the following 2007-2012 Action Plan Goals:

  • Coastal and marine habitats are in a healthy, productive, and resilient condition.
  • Environmental conditions in the Gulf of Maine support ecosystem and human health.
  • Gulf of Maine coastal communities are vibrant and have marine-dependent industries that are healthy and globally competitive.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations

  • Various state, provincial, and federal agencies

Key Parties

Canadian Federal Government

  • Environment Canada – Atlantic Region
  • Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Canadian Provincial Government

  • New Brunswick Department of Environment
  • New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquaculture
  • Nova Scotia Department of Environment
  • Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture

United States Federal Government

  • Environmental Protection Agency, New England Regional Office
  • Army Corps of Engineers Information Network
  • Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey
  • National Parks Service
  • National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

U.S. State Government

  • Maine Department of Marine Resources
  • Maine State Planning Office
  • Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management
  • New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services


Program Structure

The Gulf of Maine Council uses an organizational structure that includes the council as well as a Management and Finance Committee, two non-profit organizations, contractors, and a rotating Secretariat.

Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment

The council is comprised of leaders of state, provincial, and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. Council members rarely exercise their voting power, often operating by consensus.

Because council actions are not legally binding, the voting process is largely symbolic. It represents the commitment to the council and collaboration that would encourage agencies to implement the council’s recommendations. Voting, however, does serve to provide a record of consensus but has no effect on parties that oppose or abstain from the vote.

Working Group

A 27-member Working Group provides leadership at the implementation level and guides the work of underlying committees. The Working Group is responsible for much of the work recommended by the council. The Working Group includes one representative of each state, provincial, and federal council member, as well as Canadian and U.S. co-chairs from each of the Council’s Committees.

Thematic Committees

The council is supported by three thematic committees:

  • Habitat
  • Contaminants
  • Maritime Activities

The committees take responsibility for implementing the goals of the Action Plan. They operate under work plans reviewed and approved by the Working Group. They report to the Working Group quarterly, and meet as needed in the interim.

Subcommittees provide the workforce to support various council strategies, targets, and programs. Those include conservation, habitat monitoring, restoration, the Gulf of Maine Mapping Initiative, contaminant monitoring, Gulfwatch, sewage, bivalve harvesting industry, energy, and sustainable tourism.

Management and Finance Committee

The Management and Finance Committee supports council operations by providing outreach, information management, and project evaluation. The council seeks additional financial support and manages federal grants through two non-profit branches, the U.S. Gulf of Maine Association and the Canadian Gulf of Maine Association.


Because the program has no central office or full-time staff, the program is administered through a Secretariat that rotates among the five jurisdictions on an annual basis. The Secretariat assigns a Chair of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, Chair of the Working Group, Chair of the Management and Finance Committee.

The Secretariat hosts two annual meetings and maintains daily operations. Because the meetings rotate, participants travel throughout the program area. With this framework, participating states and provinces share the administrative burden.

Secretariat Team

A Secretariat Team is utilized to provide smooth transitions. The immediate past, current, and future Working Group Chairs comprise the Secretariat Team with counsel and coordination from core contractors. The Secretariat Team assists the Management and Finance Committee with complex issues and provides recommendations for further action.


A variety of contractors support the council, including a data manger, finance assistant, monitoring program coordinator, development coordinator, restoration program coordinator, and ecosystem indicators program manager. A Council Coordinator is also retained by contract to provide organizational continuity as the Secretariat role rotates.


Motivations for Initiating Effort


In 1973, the United States and Canadian governments held an inaugural Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers to facilitate coordination of policies and programs related to transportation, forest management, tourism, small-scale agriculture, and fisheries.

By the late 1970s, the Gulf of Maine was the focus of a fishing dispute between the two nations. Both the U.S. and Canada declared Exclusive Economic Zones with overlapping claims to the productive Georges Bank fishing ground.

In 1979, the U.S. and Canada attempted to negotiate a fisheries conservation agreement. A strong fishing lobby blocked the bill in Congress. By the end of the year, tensions surrounding the maritime boundary in the gulf grew so fierce that the International Joint Commission (IJC) had to settle the matter.

After five years of hearings and consultation the IJC released its judgment in 1984. It awarded the U.S. the majority of Georges Bank, designating only the easternmost portion to Canada.

Formation of the Gulf of Maine Council

In 1989, managers on both sides of the gulf proposed the formation of a transboundary council to bridge gaps in management. The Gulf of Maine Council may be unique because it was not initiated as a direct response to a crisis or legislated mandate, but was created out of a desire to improve management.

Forward-thinking middle-managers from state and provincial agencies recognized the potential benefits from creating a cross-jurisdictional dialogue to address the complete geographic expanse of the ecosystem.

The effort met resistance from the U.S. State Department, which questioned the state agencies’ ability and authority to request an international arrangement. Clarifying that the council would not redistribute any authorities or lead to a binding treaty cleared the way for its formation.

In December, the respective governors and premiers of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia announced the “Agreement on Conservation of the Maine Environment of the Gulf of Maine between the Governments of the Bordering States and Provinces.”

The agreement recognized that “natural resources of the Gulf of Maine are interconnected and form part of an overall ecosystem that transcends political boundaries.” It also recognized a shared duty to protect and conserve gulf resources, and a need for planning and management of human activity. Importantly, the agreement stated, “the most effective means of protecting, conserving, and managing the region's resources is through the cooperative pursuit of consistent policies, initiatives, and programs.”


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Gulf of Maine is a 93,000-square kilometer, international semi-enclosed sea. The gulf extends to the south to the waters around Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It extends to the north to the upper Bay of Fundy to the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It also includes the waters around New Hampshire and Maine. The gulf extends seaward to include Georges Bank and Brown Bank, which form the submerged walls of a basin that demarcates the gulf’s seaward boundary.

The region is characterized by numerous winding inlets and roughly 5,000 islands that contribute to its impressive 12,000 kilometer coastline.

The gulf is characterized as a basin bounded by the terrestrial coastline and underwater offshore banks that create a unique ecosystem.

Within the gulf, Georges Bank and Brown Bank yield fertile fishing grounds. The gulf provides habitat for hundreds of species of fish and shellfish and more than 18 species of marine mammals, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Herring, cod, and haddock fisheries have suffered exploitation and near collapse in the years leading up to the formation of the Gulf of Maine Council. Several fisheries are still recovering.


Practitioners have identified the following primary threats to the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine:

  • Overexploited living and physical resources
  • Upland development and land use
  • Habitat degradation
  • Water quality contamination
  • Hydrocarbon exploration
  • Vessel collisions with whales
  • Climate change


Major Strategies

The Gulf of Maine Council has used the following strategies:

  • Development of Guiding Principles. Because the council does not have implementation authority, it developed a set of principles to assist participating agencies in making decisions involving the gulf ecosystem. The principles support ecologically sustainable development; ecosystem-based planning and management; environmental protection through precaution; and public information and participation-based planning and management.
  • Development of regional datasets. The council has supported the Gulf of Maine Mapping Initiative, a U.S. and Canadian government and non-government partnership to conduct comprehensive seafloor imaging, mapping, and biological and geological surveys. The Ecosystem Indicator Partnership is a council committee formed in 2006 to provide regional-scale indicators and reporting systems for the gulf.
  • Habitat Restoration. The Habitat Restoration Grants Program, a partnership of the council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provides grants to support a strategic approach to marine, coastal, and riverine habitat restoration in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. To provide for cross-boundary restoration efforts, a Habitat Restoration Web Portal was developed to support habitat restoration work in the U.S. and Canada. Resources for planning and implementing projects for the gulf and watershed are available along with mapping tools, project summaries and current requests for proposals to the grants program. In 2004, the council published a “Gulf of Maine Habitat Restoration Strategy” to identify habitats of regional significance, prioritize restoration projects, and promote habitat restoration at the regional level.
  • Monitoring. The Gulfwatch program is a well-regarded chemical contaminants monitoring program supported by the council and EPA. Since 1993, Gulfwatch has measured contaminants in blue mussels to assess the types and concentration of contaminants in coastal waters of the gulf. The Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System is a non-profit membership supported organization that is conducting a pilot program to deliver open-source hourly oceanographic data including wind, waves, temperature, fog, currents, temperature, salinity, color, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and phytoplankton biomass.
  • Research. Gulf of Maine KnowledgeBase is a bibliographic database of scientific papers, technical reports, workshop proceedings, and fact sheets. The council maintains an informal relationship the Regional Association for Research on the Gulf of Maine (RARGOM) in order to decrease duplication of effort and increase information sharing.
  • Outreach. The council’s Public Education and Participation Committee publishes the Gulf of Maine Times, which has been credited as an outstanding outreach tool to share information throughout the region. The Gulf of Maine Science Translation Project was created to accelerate the transfer of scientific findings and techniques to resource managers, planners, policy makers, and other coastal decision-makers in the region. This project yielded publication of the Gulf of Maine Habitat Primer, which provides a guide to habitat classification schemes used in the region to allow managers to communicate more efficiently.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

To provide accountability and measurable outcomes, the most recent Gulf of Maine Council Action Plan was accompanied by an evaluative structure to identify desired short-, mid- and long-term outcomes.

The “Evaluation Strategies for Short-term Outcomes in the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment’s 2007-2010 Action Plan” provides strategies to measure progress in meeting the short-term outcomes in the plan.


Interviewees highlighted the following accomplishments or impacts of the Gulf of Maine Council:

Increased Collaboration

The council is commonly referred to as a “forum for process,” because it provides a venue for discussion and the exchange of information. Participants report that this function provides immeasurable value in the effort to enable marine ecosystem-based management. Practitioners are able to share ideas and learn from each other. Having a regional strategy allows local program staff to cite common planning objectives when seeking financial or partner support when instituting local projects.

Dedication to EBM

As an initial step in developing an ecosystem-based management toolkit for the region, the council and the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), in association with the EBM Tools Network, conducted an online survey of EBM practitioners in September and October 2007. The Gulf of Maine Ecosystem-Based Management Toolkit Survey gathered region-specific information on:

  • Management issues and situations to which people seek to apply EBM.
  • Critical obstacles to implementing EBM.
  • Types of tools and information that could facilitate practice of EBM.

Creation of Common Science

When asked to reflect on impacts to the ecosystem, many interviewees pointed to the Gulf of Maine Mapping Initiative (GOMMI), Gulfwatch, GOM Marine Habitat Primer, and the still evolving Ecosystem Indicators Partnership (ESIP). Though these do not directly impact the ecosystem, these efforts reflect a desire to create a common language across the common resource which may yield more informed management decisions.

Ecosystem Outcomes

The most referenced impact to the ecosystem related to the Habitat Restoration Grants Program, which supports restoration projects in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire for engineering studies, restoration work, and post-restoration monitoring. One council member said given the considerable development in the watershed, just maintaining ecosystem qualities is a significant achievement.

Elevated Visibility of the Gulf of Maine and Leadership

The council provides a sense of place through information sharing, raising concern, developing pride, connecting people, and rewarding conservation effort. The council website includes a non-governmental organization directory and people finder that facilitate coordination. The council also presents awards in recognition of dedication to the Gulf.


Factors Facilitating Progress

The Gulf of Maine Council has been facilitated by the following factors:

  • Forum on Process: Creation of the council in a contentious climate among management agencies in the two nations was possible because the council is as a “forum on process” and does not infringe on jurisdictional authority. The council finds strength and weakness by operating within the context of preexisting agencies and their respective budgets and staff expertise.
  • Dedication of Individuals: The council was created by dedicated individuals from state and provincial levels of government. Such participants are now represented on the Working Group and still largely drive the council’s activity. This group is successful due to its participants’ common understanding of the system, problems, institutional capacity and weakness, awareness of political climate, and the common interest to advance shared goals. These individuals communicate directly and efficiently, which creates both professional and personal relationships that facilitate increased investment in success.
  • Sense of Place: The Gulf of Maine provides a unique management opportunity because it is a well-defined semi-enclosed ecosystem. The importance of the gulf is recognized across political boundaries.
  • Structure: The rotating Secretariat and Chair roles allow participants to become familiar with the five jurisdictions. By sharing the administrative responsibilities, no single jurisdiction is aggrandized or overly burdened. The absence of a formal treaty allows the council to be dynamic and responsive to political and economic climates. This adaptive capacity allows for a “safe” feeling in which participants are allowed to learn from mistakes and change course when necessary.



The Gulf of Maine Council has encountered the following challenges:

  • Initiation: Mid-level agency staff who mobilized early efforts to develop an international council met resistance from the U.S. State Department, which questioned their authority and ability to set up the a international body.
  • Collaborating Across Jurisdictions: The council is comprised of three states and two provinces, each with its own style of governance, policy commitments, and operating procedures.
  • Overlapping Mandates: Federal initiatives may overlap with regional efforts. For example, the 2004 U.S. Ocean Action Plan supports the creation of a new institutionalized body that overlaps with the council’s efforts in the Gulf of Maine. In response to the federal plan, Rhode Island Governor Ronald L. Carcieri proposed the formation of a Northeast Regional Ocean Council (NROC), which was codified in two Ocean Resolutions signed by the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in 2005 and 2006. NROC is a partnership of six New England States: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont; with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Interior serving as federal co-leads among a supporting Northeast federal interagency team. NROC was “created to provide the regional long-term protection of ocean resources, the balanced use of those resources for economic and ecological benefits, and a coordinated approach to finding and implementing solutions.”
  • Skirting Controversial Issues: From the start, council members made the remarkable decision to avoid the highly volatile issues of fisheries management. Though this is certainly a sacrifice in inclusivity, the decision allowed conciliatory discussion to ensue. The council, however, has supported habitat restoration work that indirect benefits the fisheries.
  • Funding: A shortage of funding has forced the council to downscale its efforts. Money from the U.S. federal government has not been forthcoming. One council member stated that the council is “going through a painful time this year and next year, in which we’re going from an organization spending a million dollars per year, to an organization that’s spending three or four hundred thousand dollars. That’s a pretty big challenge.”
  • Time Commitment: Time becomes a limiting factor, given that participants are not compensated for their time and are expected to manage the council obligations with the day-to-day work at their agency jobs. As the council remodels itself because of limited funding, some participants hope the new format will be less time-consuming.
  • Bureaucracy and Power Dynamics: One interviewee noted the council is perceived as prone to governmental dialogue with less incorporation of non-governmental or academic influences. Among the agencies there may be some underlying resistance to the concept of ecosystem-based management for fear of losing agenda-setting power.
  • Measuring Outcomes: Though the people responsible for determining agency direction are involved in the council and learn by sitting at the table, it is not clear if the experience will translate into a unified approach to management in the gulf.


Lessons Learned

In 2007, the Gulf of Maine Council produced a Lessons Learned document recommending that practitioners:

  • Focus on regional needs shared by all partners.
  • Maintain continuity in commitment, leadership and staffing.
  • Build capacity and empower others to act.

In addition, participants in the council say they have learned the importance of: 

  • Developing a sustainable structure to establish continuous funding.
  • Getting the right people to the table to achieve representation and capacity to motivate change.
  • Involving industry and the private sector to address stresses at their root causes.
  • Getting down to the basics by identifying key needs and avoiding tangential issues.
  • Being resilient to changes in government and/or funding.


Website Links

Gulf of Maine Council:

Mission and Guiding Principles:

Gulf of Maine Habitat Restoration Web Portal: