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What is MEBM?

Marine Ecosystem-Based Management seeks to manage marine resources in ways that protect ecosystem health while providing the ecosystem services needed by people. Rather than focusing solely on a single species or resource, MEBM incorporates science and balances the demands of user groups in a manner that produces management strategies that are more likely to be sustainable than traditional approaches.

Principles of Ecosystem Management

Common Elements – The scientific literature and policy statements on terrestrial and marine resource management contain an evolving set of definitions of EBM. For the purposes of identifying the case studies used in this study, however, these statements are similar enough to identify a set of overarching elements:

  • Scale:  MEBM seeks to use ecologically relevant boundaries rather than political or administrative boundaries, and often involves management at larger geographic scales or longer time frames.
  • Complexity:  MEBM views marine resources as elements of complex systems, and seeks to employ strategies that acknowledge and use complexity in management. 
  • Balance:  MEBM seeks to balance and integrate the needs of multiple human user groups while maintaining the health of the underlying system that supports those needs.
  • Collaboration:  Since managing across boundaries involves the interests of more people, and managing complexity involves more areas of knowledge, MEBM is usually collaborative and involves a diverse set of organizations and individuals in thinking about and making decisions.
  • Adaptive management: Given the existence of uncertainty in what we know and the inevitability of change in the future, MEBM seeks to be adaptive through monitoring and evaluation tied to changes in future management directions.

No Single Approach – None of the MEBM initiatives profiled in the case studies in this website achieve all of these principles. But most are striving to expand beyond a single-species or single-issue perspective. In doing so, they are working to understand and manage complex marine ecosystems and the conflicting needs of user groups. At bottom, success in MEBM does not come from “achieving collaboration” or “managing with complexity,” but in taking steps to do more of these than was evident in the past. Hence, each of these principles can be seen as a set of continuous dials, not on-off switches. Moving the dial in light of the unique context of a specific place is moving toward an MEBM approach.

A Brief History of Ecosystem Management

Evolving Understanding in Terrestrial Resource Management – While the significance of the ecosystem as a management concept was recognized as early as the 1930s (Shelford, 1933), ecosystem management in terrestrial resource management developed in the early 1990s as an alternative to multiple use forestry. 

  • 1994: In an article published in Conservation Biology, Edward Grumbine produced one of the earliest attempts to define EBM and outline its goals. In his words, “Ecosystem management integrates scientific knowledge of ecological relationships within a complex sociopolitical and values framework toward the general goal of protecting native ecosystem integrity over the long term” (Grumbine, 1994).
  • 1995: A special panel of the Ecological Society of America identified the following eight components of an ecosystem management approach:  long-term sustainability; clear, operational goals; sound ecological models; complexity and interconnectedness; dynamic character of ecosystems; attention to context and scale; humans as ecosystem components; and adaptability and accountability (Christensen et al, 1995).

Definitions in Marine Resource Management – Ecosystem management concepts were generally applied to the marine context some ten years after their development in the terrestrial realm, and were pushed along by a sharper focus on the health of the oceans and the interest of philanthropic organizations like the Packard Foundation in improving the situation.

  • 1994: In response to a federal mandate to adopt an ecosystem approach, NOAA officially adopted EBM in 1994 and reaffirmed their commitment in a 2004 update to the Strategic Plan for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA 2004).
  • 1996: Peter Larkin provided one of the first assessments of the applicability of EBM to marine systems. He found that the EBM goals defined by Grumbine generally were not applicable to marine environments; however, he noted that “Applied to marine ecosystems, the term ecosystem management is scientific shorthand for the contemporary appreciation that fisheries management must take greater note of the multispecies interactions in a community of fish species and their dependence on underlying ecosystem dynamics” (Larkin, 1996).  
  • 2003: In prescribing changes needed to improve the health of the world’s oceans, the Pew Oceans Commission embraced ecosystem-based management, commenting that “The goal of EBM is to maintain the health of the whole as well as the parts. It acknowledges the connections among things” (Pew Oceans Commission, 2003, 8).
  • 2004: The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy also endorsed EBM, noting, “Ecosystem-based management looks at all the links among living and nonliving resources, rather than considering single issues in isolation.  Instead of developing a management plan for one issue … EBM focuses on the multiple activities occurring within specific areas that are defined by ecosystem, rather than political, boundaries” (US Commission on Ocean Policy, 2004, 63). 
  • 2004: The Packard Foundation initiated a 5-year MEBM grantmaking program, having concluded that, “attempts to initiate EBM were significantly undermined by gaps in scientific understanding about how to manage coastal-marine systems, by insufficient incorporation of scientific knowledge into decision-making and by inadequate inclusion of stakeholders in the process of building the scientific basis for EBM” (Sherwood 2011).
  • 2005: In a consensus statement signed by over 200 scientists and policy experts, Karen McLeod and colleagues summarized, “Ecosystem-based management is an integrated approach to management that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans.  The goal of ecosystem-based management is to maintain an ecosystem in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so that it can provide the services humans want and need.  Ecosystem-based management differs from current approaches that usually focus on a single species, sector, activity or concern; it considers the cumulative impacts of different sectors”(McLeod et al, 2005).

Understanding the Field-Level Reality of EBM – Studies of early EBM efforts in terrestrial and freshwater systems began to appear in the mid-1990s. These highlighted a set of challenges and factors that facilitated success. Many of these factors are the same as those identified from the marine EBM cases profiled on this site.

  • 1996: Steven Yaffee and colleagues studied more than 100 examples of ecosystem management efforts in the United States. They concluded that social process improvements were evident more often than ecological changes, and that obstacles such as public opposition and agency culture were challenging implementation (Yaffee et al, 1996).
  • 1999: In an article entitled “Three Faces of Ecosystem Management” published in Conservation Biology, Steven Yaffee noted that the term, ecosystem management, was interpreted quite differently by different groups of people.
  • 2006: Katie Arkema and colleagues reviewed 18 definitions of ecosystem-based management and applied them to 8 marine and coastal ecosystems and concluded that the literature-based definitions were only “loosely incorporated into management plans and actions” (Arkema et al, 2006).
  • 2008: In a BioScience article, Mary Ruckleshaus and colleagues identified six key EBM principles – including clear objectives and boundaries, use of a variety of strategies, and matching governance structures to the scale of decisions – and applied them to four MEBM cases. They highlighted the “relatively young state of marine EBM in practice.”
  • 2010:  In an article entitled, “The many faces of ecosystem-based management” published in Marine Policy, Heather Tallis and colleagues noted that “a number of barriers – real and perceived – have hindered widespread implementation of EBM,” but go on to embrace the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment process as the way to move forward (Tallis et al, 2010).


  1. Arkema, K.K., S.C. Abramson and B.M. Dewsbury. 2006. Marine ecosystem-based management: from characterization to implementation. Frontiers in Ecology 4(10):525-532.
  2. Christensen, N.L., et al. 1996. The report of the Ecological Society of America committee on the scientific basis for ecosystem management. Ecological Applications 6:665-691.
  3. Grumbine, R.E. 1994. What is ecosystem management? Conservation Biology 8(1):27-38.
  4. Larkin, P.A. 1996. Concepts and issues in marine ecosystem management. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 6:139-164.
  5. McLeod, K.L., et al. 2005. Scientific consensus statement on marine ecosystem-based management. Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, Corvallis OR.
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2004. New Priorities for the 21st Century: National Marine Fisheries Service Strategic Plan, Updated for FY 2005-FY 2010.  U.S. Department of Commerce.  Washington DC.
  7. Pew Oceans Commission. 2003. America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. A Report to the Nation. Arlington VA.
  8. Ruckelshaus, M., et al. 2008. Marine ecosystem-based management in practice: scientific and governance challenges. BioScience 58(1):53-63.
  9. Shelford, V.E. 1933. The preservation of natural biotic communities. Ecology 14(2):240-245.
  10. Sherwood, K. 2011. Synthesis report for the ecosystem-based management for sustainable coastal-marine systems initiative.  The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Los Altos CA.
  11. Tallis, H., et al. 2010. The many faces of ecosystem-based management: Making the process work today in real places. Marine Policy 34:340-348.
  12. U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004. An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century. Final Report. Washington, DC.
  13. Yaffee, S.L., et al. 1996.  Ecosystem Management in the United States: An Assessment of Current Experience.  Island Press. Covelo CA.
  14. Yaffee, S.L. 1999. Three faces of ecosystem management. Conservation Biology 13:713-725.


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