Scientists have long been trained to adhere to the scientific process of identifying a problem or question and testing hypotheses in an attempt to find an answer. Conventionally, this process informed management by creating a compartmentalized management scheme of the planet’s natural resources. The advent of Ecosystem Based Management (EBM) turned many of these conventional models of management around by prompting scientists and resource managers to consider the interconnectivity of our natural systems. One of the consequences of managing in this style is the elevated consideration of human elements of ecosystems, be they benefits to humans from ecosystem services, human uses of ecosystems, or the cultural importance of certain ecosystems. While EBM is constantly evolving and changing depending on which system is being managed, there are few static principles, notably integration, adaptation, precaution, and sustainability, all of which are greatly influenced by stakeholders.
One of the main tenets of Ecosystem Based Management is its inclusion of adaptive management techniques. As compared to more traditional trial and error based management, adaptive management allows for the constant monitoring and re-evaluation of methods in order to discern the effectiveness of management choices. This essentially creates large, dynamic experiments that are constantly changing to better meet management needs. This, however, presents the first instance where scientists and managers must confront the needs of public stakeholders. The public often has a much different set of expectations of resource management, expectations which are much more concerned with immediate effects of management, such as economic effects or effects on human health.
The beauty of adaptive management is that management can change to meet needs of stakeholders, or change restrictions based on review of monitoring data1. Some may even go so far as to argue that technically managers of ecosystems, being primarily government employees in the United States, have an obligation to serve the needs of the public. Generally the health of an ecosystem and the overall needs of the public at large are not mutually exclusive, but to many management can often seem burdensome or even in extreme cases tyrannical. This is where scientific communication comes into play. Adaptive management gives much greater freedom to meet a variety of needs, but scientists and managers must remain transparent in the process of management. Examples of effective scientific communication include “report cards” for natural systems, public forums, and education programs. This fosters communication among stakeholders and can often help convince the wider public of the benefit of current ecosystem management2.
In addition to adaptive management, one of a manager’s biggest tools for dealing with differing needs and opinions of the public is the use of precaution. As mentioned, public stakeholders are often concerned with immediate effects of resource management as this can directly affect their economic and cultural needs. It seems that sometimes, environmental restoration can take a lower priority than human needs. This is well illustrated by Maslow’s hierarchy, showing that will generally tend to take care of our safety and loved ones (including economically), before tending to care about more ephemeral things such as the environment.
Using the precautionary principle however can lend those who are trying to conserve and protect the environment a helping hand. A core foundation of an EBM system is the fact that the environment and human society are inextricably linked, and often, environmental concerns also become human safety concerns. The Chesapeake is a good example of this, where water quality issues can be linked to proliferation of numerous human pathogens, including Vibrio vulnificus and Mycobacteriosis3. While the precautionary principle is most easily understood and used with new technology, there can be crossover as new technologies, such as pesticides, end up affecting the environment4. The key to using the precautionary principle is the ability to balance the risk of no action with the risk of some action, while discerning how much risk is acceptable to the public.
So far we’ve seen how to consider and incorporate the public’s views in Ecosystem Based Management. What about the expectations of the public, however? When it is announced that an ecosystem or specific species is the target of a restoration, many believe these systems will be restored to some former glory. Restoration of systems can become a tricky game of semantics however, as often times an ecosystem or resource cannot be brought back to a former state because too many variables have changed. The concepts of sustainability and resilience become useful here, as managers must decide in tandem with stakeholders how to restore systems to a sustainable state, not necessarily a former state. The actual question posed to managers and researchers of systems is what functions and ecosystems services are desired in the system in question. Stakeholder input for this decision making process is imperative, as the public will benefit from certain ecosystem services. When a balance between human needs and sustainability is reached, the system, including the humans that interact with it, stand to benefit enormously.
EBM has become a promising strategy for balancing all beneficiaries and stressors while managing entire ecosystems. With the right amount of monitoring, reevaluation, stakeholder participation and communication, Ecosystem Based Management can be an effective means to manage our natural systems in an integrated and cooperative fashion.
1. Rist, L., Felton, A., Samuelsson, L., Sandström, C., & Rosvall, O. (2013). A new paradigm for adaptive management. Ecology and Society, 18(4). Ecology and Society 18(4): 63.
2. Dennison W.C., Lookingbill T.R., Carruthers T.J.B., Hawkey J.M., Carter S.M. (2007) An eye-opening approach to developing and communicating integrated environmental assessments. Front. Ecol. Environ. 5(6):307–314
3. Kane, A.S., Stine, C.B., Hungerford, L., Matsche, M., Driscoll, C., & Baya, A.M. (2007). Mycobacteria as environmental portent in Chesapeake Bay fish species. Emerging infectious diseases, 13(2), 329.
4. EU efforts for Bee Health.” European Commission. Updated 2/6/2017. http://ec.europa.eu/food/animals/live_animals/bees/health_en.