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How do MEBM Projects Get Started?

Triggers: Why Did the Projects Get Started?

Ecological Crisis – An ecological crisis motivated individuals to take action because problems become too big to ignore or the crisis mobilized advocates who pressed for change.

Ecological Crisis

Economic Hardship or Impact – Economic hardship caused by declines in the health of fisheries or other economic forces provided a powerful incentive to improve resource management.

Economic Hardship or Impact

  • New England fishermen formed the Georges Bank Cod Hook Sector to create an alternative fishery management mechanism that would benefit the resource and reverse an economic collapse.
  • The Philippines FISH Project was embraced by local fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened by declining catches.
  • An international partnership created the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve on a Colombian protectorate to encourage sustainable development practices and fight poverty in a community experiencing high unemployment.
Threat of Development or Overuse – Resource development threats created a sense of urgency and mobilized a constituency to advocate for greater protections.

Threat of Development or Overuse

Increased Awareness and Understanding – The emergence of new information expanded understanding, caused individuals to take notice, and motivated individuals to act.

Increased Awareness and Understanding

Strategic Opportunities – In some places, proponents of MEBM initiatives were able to grasp opportunities to proactively encourage joint action.

Strategic Opportunities

  • The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was started in part as a way to attract federal restoration funding comparable to that received for restoration efforts in South Florida and the California Bay Delta.
  • Other places, such as Morro Bay, California, were able to secure significant funding from the Packard Foundation’s Marine EBM science program. San Luis Obispo Science and Ecosystem Alliance (SLOSEA) used Packard funding to develop scientific information, create pilot programs, and engage people within the region.  The funding provided an incentive for collaboration among organizations that previously had not worked closely together.
Policy Directive – In some places, public policy mandated government agencies to examine a specific resource or set of resources, or initiate a planning process that brought groups together to articulate a set of shared goals and strategies.

Policy Directive

Leadership: Who Pushed the Projects Forward?

Community – Leaders emerged from local communities to establish MEBM initiatives from the bottom-up. Some of these individuals were existing social or political leaders. Others were motivated to take action by their perception of the threat or need to act.


  • Two local residents, the wife of a fisherman and a graduate student, formed the Port Orford Ocean Resources Team in Oregon, and generated support in their community to create a marine stewardship area.
  • In New England, a small group of fishermen and fishing community advocates formed the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and reached out to conservationists and other stakeholders.
  • In the San Juan Islands of Washington state, a county council member and other community leaders created the San Juan Initiative, which was successful because of its local ties.
Agency Leaders – Leaders in natural resource management agencies, acting in the absence of policy direction or higher-level guidance, formed partnerships to share information and strategies, and harmonize management practices.

Agency Leaders

  • The long-standing Gulf of Maine Council was initiated and nurtured by officials in agencies in several Northeastern states and two Canadian provinces.
High-level Political Officials – In some cases, elected officials declared conservation goals as regional or national priorities, and directed agencies to achieve them.

High-level Political Officials

Nongovernmental Organizations – Advocacy by non-governmental organizations has often focused attention on a resource, and built a constituency to support greater protections.

Nongovernmental Organizations

  • The Mafia Island Marine Park, off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, was established with the advocacy of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
  • WWF also played a role in providing advice and assistance to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to create a shared understanding for governance of the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion.
  • The Galapagos Marine Reserve emerged after advocacy by NGOs that included The Charles Darwin Foundation, which helped engage fishermen and stakeholders.
Foundations or Aid Organizations -- External investment by a foundation or aid organization removed stumbling blocks in places that might be motivated to expand management of marine resources, but lacked the ability to do so.

Foundations or Aid Organizations

Mechanisms: How Did the Projects Take Initial Steps Forward?

Conducted Education and Outreach– By conducting education programs and reaching out to targeted groups or agencies, projects built understanding and elevated concern that enabled action.

Conducted Education and Outreach

  • The Downeast Groundfish Initiative reached out to fishermen and scientists to build an understanding of the fishery and a constituency for improved stewardship of the fishery.
  • A grassroots organization in New Zealand began creating the Fiordland Marine Conservation Strategy by raising awareness of the national system’s importance and fostering public pride.
Sought Assistance from NGOs, Foundations or Agencies – Projects reached out to others with critical expertise or information, or the ability to provide technical assistance or funding.

Sought Assistance from NGOs, Foundations or Agencies

  • The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team partnered with Ecotrust, the Surfrider Foundation and other NGOs, foundations and consulting groups to develop baseline data, engage the community, and develop maps of ecologically and economically important fishing grounds.
  • The government of Belize sought conservation assessment tools and policy-related advice from the Wildlife Conservation Society to inform management strategies of the Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve.  
Established an Informal Forum for Interaction – A forum enabled parties to share information, learn about the ecosystem, discover shared concerns, and set objectives for management. Forums produced vision or mission statements that began to define the MEBM effort.

Established an Informal Forum for Interaction

  • The Benguela Current Large Marine Ecosystem, off the coast of southwestern Africa, is the site of an evolving MEBM effort involving South Africa, Namibia and Angola. A workshop on fisheries dynamics provided for the assembly of officials from across the region, who agreed on the need for new management structures.
  • A series of workshops initiated by the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance enabled development of a consensus-based, goal-oriented vision for the New England groundfishing fleet and established connections among stakeholder groups.
  • The Gulf of Maine Council provided a place where agency-level environmental managers from Canada and the United States could share concerns and discuss harmonizing and coordinating ecosystem protection strategies.
Leveraged Existing Policies or Programs – A legislative or programmatic policy also provided a mechanism for initiating a MEBM effort.

Leveraged Existing Policies or Programs

Created Pilot Projects or Demonstration Programs – Pilot projects demonstrated the value of the program, preserved positive momentum by creating small “wins,” and provided incentive to experiment at larger scales.

Created Pilot Projects or Demonstration Programs

  • A small grant program by the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project implemented community-level pollution reduction efforts in China and South Korea, helping to support the creation of an agreement establishing national-level goals.
  • Numerous small projects were created by the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve of Colombia to demonstrate how to improve sanitation, waste disposal and construction practices in the archipelago’s shantytowns, and experiment with the recycling of certain materials.
Conducted Monitoring – Monitoring data enabled groups to learn more about an ecosystem, elevated awareness of threats, and engaged others.

Conducted Monitoring –

Avoided Major Conflicts by Limiting the Scope of the Initiative – In some places, project organizers decided to exclude certain issues or resources from their initial efforts. Some of these issues were “hot button” items that engendered significant conflict.  Others were items in which an existing institutional structure already provided management. While it may seem counter to MEBM principles to limit the scale or range of issues, some efforts clearly benefited from doing so, by gaining momentum and building support without triggering up-front opposition.  

Avoided Major Conflicts by Limiting the Scope of the Initiative

  • Founding members of the Gulf of Maine Council avoided discussing fishery regulations, long a source of division between interests in the United States and Canada and that were already being managed through existing regulatory structures.
  • Reflecting its geography, the Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative avoided a focus on the western portion of the Scotian Shelf, an area of greater fishing intensity that might have drawn the initiative into more complex transboundary issues with the United States.


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),"