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How can the ecosystem approach be implemented?

The ecosystem approach can apply in all decision-making processes that affect the natural world – from those concerned with how we manage our seas, through to the day-to-day decisions of businesses, sea-users and consumers.

To help guide implementation, the CBD adopted a set of 12 principles known as the Malawi principlesvi, designed to be adaptable in different contextsvii. Early in the process, PISCES stakeholders developed their own interpretation; comprising 11 principles for the Celtic Sea (see Box 4). These have informed the development of this guide.

The ecosystem approach can be seen in action in a wide variety of contexts and a range of scales. Examples at a large scale include:

  • Ecosystem-based management. A fully integrated management framework based on ecological boundaries – see case study 1.
  • Marine spatial planning uses the ecosystem approach to make integrated, forward-looking and consistent decisions on human uses of the sea. Many countries are developing marine spatial plans to combat crowded and conflicting sea use.
  • River basin management plans, developed under the EU Water Framework Directive, use a ‘catchment approach’ to tackle multiple interconnected water bodies (rivers, lakes, groundwater and coastal waters).

Box 4: PISCES stakeholder interpretation of ecosystem approach principles

The PISCES principles reflect many of the same elements as the Malawi Principles but with a more explicit emphasis on stakeholder involvement (P1) and the need to connect strategies and management across multiple scales (P8). The final agreed principles were:

Principle 1:

Stakeholder role: stakeholders should adopt an active and committed role to achieve the common goal of the ecosystem approach; stakeholders should be involved in all aspects of management leading to a shared understanding of objectives.

Principle 2:

Balance: there should be a suitable balance between conservation and the sustainable use of resources in the interests of the health of the whole ecosystem.

Principle 3:

Evidence: an evidence-based system should be used to integrate social, environmental and economic interests.

Principle 4:

Adaptive: management should use an iterative and flexible approach.

Principle 5:

Timescales: management should be set for the long term with short- and medium-term objectives and milestones and should enable involvement of future stakeholders.

Principle 6:

Economic sensitivity: involvement in implementing the ecosystem approach should not create an economic disadvantage but should promote responsible and sustainable behaviour.

Principle 7:

Subsidiarity: management should be undertaken by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralised competent authority.

Principle 8:

Connecting international through to local: local and sectoral strategies, plans and policies should be harmonised and priorities established to reflect national and international goals and objectives for conservation and sustainable use.

Principle 9:

Review and monitoring: an effective and targeted performance monitoring and review regime should be used to inform management.

Principle 10:

Adjacent impacts: consideration should be given to how events or actions in the Celtic Sea can influence or be influenced by events or actions on the land, in the air or in different parts of the ocean.

Principle 11:

Involve and inform: management should involve and inform all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.

Examples at a smaller scale include:

  • Project, scheme, activity and site-level planning: at this scale, the ecosystem approach provides a framework for considering and managing ecosystem impacts and functions, including links between environmental and socio-economic aspects. This could apply to environmental impact assessment, master planning and protected area management.
  • Single sector policies, such as fishery management, to help evaluate the activity alongside other potential uses of marine space/resources in the context of an overarching, integrated framework.
  • Design of economic instruments for correcting market distortions that negatively effect biodiversity. For example, it can help set prices, incentives and penalties that incorporate the costs to ecosystem services (e.g. habitat loss and pollution).

Case study 1: Port Orford ecosystem-based management plan, Oregon, USA

In the late 1990s, local fishermen in Port Orford, Oregon felt disenfranchised from the federal fishery management system (analogous to EU directives). Believing a bottom-up approach would be more effective, they formed a non-profit organisation, Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT), to produce an ecosystem-based management plan.

They identified a Community Stewardship Area that incorporated the traditional fishing grounds of the Port Orford fishing fleet, and consulted with local scientists to develop a science and access plan based on ecosystem-based management principles and goals. This plan considered the entire local ocean environment and the surrounding watersheds that drain into the near-shore ecosystem.

POORT’s structure includes a fishermen’s board, a community advisory board and government. The Port Orford example has gained widespread recognition and support from policymakers, management agencies and non-governmental organisations as a model for how community-based ocean management can and should work.

Further information: www.oceanresourceteam.org


  1. vi.   Convention on Biological Diversity (2000) COP 5 Decision V/6. The ecosystem approach.
  2. vii.   Shepherd, G. (ed.) (2008) The Ecosystem Approach: Learning from Experience. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

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