Integrated science for integrated management: fairy tale or finally here?

Phil Levin, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, USA, took Thursday morning's plenary lecture audience on an adventure through the landscape of Integrated Ecosystem-based Management (EBM) Levin and asked if perhaps EBM is a fairy tale?
Published: 18 September 2014

​​Once upon a time, 42% of assessed groundfish on the west coast of North America were overfished. Now they are doing ok. Were Integrated Ecosystem-based management and Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEA) the driving force behind the recovery of western North American fish stocks? An engaging storyline but ultimately it was in fact good single species management. So, do we need IEAs? No, concluded Levin, to the shock of many in the audience. End of lecture, or so we thought.

Fish stocks are not the sole component of the ecosystem. Whether we take them out of the sea or we leave them in there, there is an impact. Fishing affects the ecosystem. Agriculture also affects the ecosystem. There are conservation interests, fishery interests, and many more. If we are to take an EBM approach then trade-offs are going to be involved. The challenge of EBM is that while we know that the ecosystem provides a large number of services, we still have a lack of understanding in how these services interact. Further to this, everyone values different services differently. This is where IEAs step in.

Before we can start to look at whether an ecosystem is healthy or not, we need to know what a healthy ecosystem is. Then, using indicators and risk assessment, we can assess whether the ecosystem is healthy or not. Then what do we do? We can use IEAs to evaluate the likely trade-offs associated with management alternatives.

But who determines a healthy ecosystem? Scientists can't write the story on their own. It is a societal question and therefore needs stakeholder engagement. However, in order to address the issue, everybody needs be listening to the same story.  And the role of science, as demonstrated by Levin's case study of folk taxonomies, is to bridge the gaps in knowledge so that the most complete story is being told.

EBM is not starting from a blank page. Levin emphasised that we already have the data to get started. While we may envisage IEAs as a fantastical Pegasus, sometimes the more simplistic tools that we already have will do.  This is where IEAs have to begin. "And we have enough existing data to do this", Levin stated.  

Through combining ecological relationships and societal choices, management targets can be set. IEAs will address the questions that are asked by managers but the process should also address the questions that should have been asked. As Levin forecasts, "Managers are going to have to deal with these questions eventually, they´re not going to have a choice."

Levin believes that the IEA fairy tale can become reality but only if we engage stakeholders, managers, and policy makers early, often, and continually. Importantly, the human dimension needs to be a core component of IEAs and not just an add-on. Perfection is an ideal but it is also unrealistic to expect IEAs to achieve this ideal. This should not stand in the way of achieving something good though. IEAs will not achieve a happy ever after for the ecosystem but used as a tool to serve current management needs, and not at the expense of more integrative ocean management, they will help to achieve a healthier reality. 

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​P​hil Levin (centre) took part in a further panel discussion on IEAs in Theme session C.

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Integrated science for integrated management: fairy tale or finally here?

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