A holistic approach to saving the sea

Scientists recognize that species cannot be managed in isolation; management must be based ecosystem-wide – including earth and sky.

Fish on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Some 4,000 fish species live in or around coral reefs, which are a very complex and productive ecosystem. Scientists now realize they must take into account the many interactions in such ecosystems.

Eager to correct for errors that might arise when viewing pieces of a greater whole in isolation, scientists in recent years have been calling for a more holistic approach to resource management. They’ve dubbed this approach “ecosystem-based management” (EBM).

In the oceans, EBM means managing for the health of the entire ecosystem – from small shrimplike copepods to large bluefin tuna – rather than just a single stock. It means that, when setting fishing quotas for a forage fish like herring, the needs of other predators, like cod, should be taken into account. And it means considering fishing’s effect (notably bottom trawling) on fish habitat.

In the larger context, EBM means considering factors like coastal development and pollution that affect the marine environment. It implies working across a wide geographical area as well as a range of agencies. Indeed, some say EBM is as much about reforming human institutions to work harmoniously and productively with one another as anything else.

EBM seeks to make goals and trade-offs explicit. In seeking to restore Washington State’s Puget Sound by 2020 along EBM principles, for example, scientists are gathering stakeholders to discuss their often-competing interests. Salmon there have dangerously high PCB levels, which concerns fishermen. (Orcas that wash up dead have to be carted to toxic waste dumps due to high toxin levels.) Runoff from PCB-laden soil around the sound must be limited. Housing developments increase runoff by limiting what the earth can absorb, but people also need affordable housing.

“You get people talking to each other that have never spoken to each other before – orca recovery people talking with home builders,” says Mary Ruckelshaus, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research biologist in Seattle working on the project. And novel solutions – limiting housing density, planning for green spaces – inevitably arise.

Since 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act has called for an ecosystem-wide approach to managing US fisheries. In 2005, the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) released a consensus document signed by 219 scientists outlining what EBM should look like. Among its key points: protecting ecosystem structure; acknowledging the interconnectedness of air, land, and sea; and integrating social, economic, and institutional perspectives. Stakeholder participation is also central to success.

The emphasis on holistic thinking goes back at least as far as Aldo Leopold, an early 20th-century American ecologist and author of the conservationist classic “A Sand County Almanac” (1949).

But its acceptance by mainstream scientists and policymakers reflects several factors: a growing recognition of the importance of healthy robust ecosystems to human health, a feeling that simpler approaches are – and have been – inadequate to the challenges of an ever more complicated and crowded world, and the sense that humankind has reached the end of a long period of accelerating resource consumption.

“We’re not in an empty world anymore,” says Robert Costanza, director of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “We’re in a full-world situation. And in a full-world situation, you can’t ignore ... connections.”

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