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Ecosystem Approach

What is the ecosystem approach?

An ecosystem approach, in simple terms, is a way of management that looks at the environment as a whole, including the human relationship with that environment. It promotes conservation and sustainable use of resource and addresses the need to balance social, economic and environmental issues.

Stakeholders getting involved in management is at the heart of an ecosystem approach.

By taking this approach we can find ways for what have historically been competing marine sectors to work in harmony to ensure a sustainable future for our seas and all those that use it.

How does it work?

The ecosystem approach is a way of making decisions that allows us to manage our activities sustainably. It recognises that humans are part of the ecosystem and that our activities both affect the ecosystem and depend on it.

An ecosystem management plan should:

  • Take an integrated approach that considers all parts of the ecosystem (e.g. human activities, habitats and species, and physical processes).
  • Be focused on a particular place, with boundaries that are scientifically defined;
  • Account for the ways in which things or actions in that place affect each other;
  • Consider the way things or actions in this place can influence or be influenced by things or actions on land (like dams or fertilisers in the waterbody), in the air (like air pollution), or in different parts of the ocean (like fishing or oil spills); and
  • Integrate the concerns of the environment, society, the economy and our institutions.
  • Involve stakeholders in the development and delivery of the plan

How is it different?

Traditional management approaches have tended to be sectoral, considering individual parts of the ecosystem in isolation. This has often led to poor decisions and conflict over space and resources. This in turn causes damage to the environment and economy. In contrast, the ecosystem approach considers our activities as part of a single system where all sectors are integrated, allowing the wider consequences of each decision to be determined and managed.

Why is it important?

In the past, important ecosystem services* have been undervalued (e.g.pollination) they may be hard to measure, or fall outside conventional economic markets. However, there is growing recognition that we need to factor the multiple services natural systems provide into our decision-making – to get the most economic and social benefit and avoid the costly consequences of damaging them.

The ecosystem approach calls for strong stakeholder participation – involving all those who have an interest in, or could be affected by, decision-making. This is crucial, not least because the ecosystem approach is about managing human activities. People are much more likely to act upon a decision and change their behaviour if they understand and accept the basis on which it was made. This is far more likely with full and active participation.

*Ecosystem services: the important benefits for human beings that arise from healthily functioning ecosystems, notably production of oxygen, soil genesis, and water detoxification

For an example of it working in practice, see the Port Orford ecosystem management plan case study.