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Making the case for the ecosystem approach

Examples of the ecosystem approach in action around the world presented at recent Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance Support Action (AORA-CSA) workshop in Copenhagen.
Published: 26 February 2016

​​​​​​​​The ecosystem approach to ocean management is one of eight key research themes laid out under the transatlantic AORA alliance. It presents a major challenge, most notably in terms of perceptions, enactment, and synthesizing the needs and goals of the multiple industry sectors plying their trades within these ecosystems and marine spaces.  

To explore these issues and the different puzzles confronting the application of the ecosystem approach, international experts assembled for the AORA-CSA workshop at the end of January in Copenhagen. This signified an important stage in the journey of the AORA alliance, the framework through which the transatlantic research cooperation assigned by the 2013 Galway Statement​ is being fostered and put into practice.

The outputs of the workshop were stimulated by case studies from far and wide, selected to provide examples of attempts to implement the ecosystem approach. The studies highlighted challenges with knowledge provision, working across sectors, implementation of plans due to difficulties in the governance systems. What were the problems presented? And what were the relevant messages from these cases? 

Protection of Northwest Africa's Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem
Situated off the coast of Northwest Africa, the Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) is striking for its high primary productivity, and it ranks towards the top of African LMEs for fisheries production with an annual total of 2-3 million tonnes. This region yields vital goods and services for coastal countries – from aquaculture space and fish habitat to transport and tourism.

The case of the Canary Current LME was outlined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' (FAO) Birane Sambe, regional coordinator of the initiative, who spoke about the governance plan and the mechanism designed to involve all partners at national and regional level. The project is addressing transboundary concerns on aspects like declining fisheries and biodiversity and water quality through governance reforms, investments and management programmes.

"To start the project with an objective commonly shared by all partners, and the partners need to be representative of all sectors and they must compromise among the sectoral objective in order to achieve sustainable use of natural resources," he commented on which areas of the Canary Current plan would be most relevant to the AORA-CSA work. "I see that some activities have been undertaken in this sense. The mechanism to share knowledge will also be very useful."

"We are following almost the same process, which is to involve all partners in the area. In our case study we deal with fisheries, and it is important to involve all stakeholders."

Canada Large Ocean Management Areas
Canada's implementation of the approach was brought into the spotlight by Robin Anderson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Under her country's Oceans Act, five Large Ocean Management Areas (LOMAs) were proposed based on ecological characteristics and the pressures and sectors associated with them. In a process lasting almost twenty years, the idea was to focus on areas with the greatest need given the scale of the country's oceanic zones.

First scientists characterized ecologically and biologically significant areas and identified conservations concerns for particular stocks, species and habitats. This was followed by a risk assessment framework based on the overlap of actors and human pressures – such as trawling and drilling – and the vulnerability of these to different sensitive areas to prioritize conservation objectives. A high level regional committee involving federal and provincial departments and agencies was set up to implement these priorities, but due to other legislative blocks the LOMAs were not initiated.

One challenge, according to Anderson, is decision-making given changing priorities. This was particularly relevant following the shift of the oceans programme to focus on Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks, invasive species, and conflict resolution tools. She also stressed the importance of pinpointing the main areas of concern.

"What we had in this process was an extremely scientific process to start it off. Everything was built on that science base, and you need that to properly identify priorities. That's a really important aspect of what we did. Then bringing the people to the table – both stakeholders and the decision-makers, the people who can actually implement this. There's a need to do it in this participatory way and we haven't done that before – that's the biggest challenge."

The Ecosystem Approach in South America
Ignacio Gianelli of the Marine Science Unit at Uruguay's Universidad de la República offered a perspective from South America, summarizing some of the experiences of small-scale fisheries in Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador.

"There were successes and failures," he explained. "A common issue among the case studies were that a solid legal framework was established, although there was no sufficient enforcement of this. And that's the message I want to give here – that a legal framework is not enough, it needs to be continuously monitored and enforced."

Ecosystem based management in Australia
In his talk, Dave Smith of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) covered national, regional, local approaches in his country. He suggested a couple of key elements, one of which was is reflected in the example in his presentation on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. As a kind of transboundary organization, the authority deals with interactions between sectors, and he considers this a good example of ecosystem based management.

"I think one lesson is pragmatism," he said, reflecting on how Australia's efforts could be useful for AORA-CSA. "I was really impressed with OSPAR and what they're doing there. Also not being too ambitious. One thing I think ecosystem based management should be about is interaction of sectors."

"What OSPAR are doing and what the Great Barrier Reef is doing and what lots of other people have been talking about this week is the need to manage interactions. There are still some pretty significant research needs; cumulative impacts is probably the greatest one, which we really haven't got our heads around yet."

"Also, it's a journey. You will never finish EBM, because objectives change. But we have to do it. The marine estate is getting more congested and different sectors have different objectives, which are sometimes conflicting, so we have to find a better way of doing it."

Concluding matters
The AORA-CSA workshop was organized by ICES along with DFO Canada and the US' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – both contributing to the AORA-CSA – as well as the FAO. AORA-CSA has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme​ under grant agreement No 652677.

Alongside the presentations, breakout groups explored the key questions and provided plenty of feedback and points to build on, bringing plenty of new thinking and fresh perspective to help light the way forward.

More about the workshop can be read on its webpage, where the case study presentation slides can also be viewed. An official workshop report will follow soon.

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​The case studies​ presented came from various locations across the Atlantic whilst one was from Australia.​

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Making the case for the ecosystem approach

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