Managing Ecosystems, Managing Fisheries: How Do EBM and EBFM Relate?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Fisheries management is an important component of broader marine management, no matter the circumstances of place or the scale of EBM undertaken. But what is the relationship between ecosystem-based management in general and ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM) in particular? Would it be better to think of EBFM as an entry point to EBM, or to consider EBM as a necessary prerequisite to effective EBFM?

Readers have queried MEAM in the past about the relationship between EBM and ecosystem-based fisheries management. MEAM devotes this issue to exploring distinctions between, and dependencies among, these approaches.

Role of EBFM in EBM

Many of the EBM practitioners that MEAM contacted on the relationship between EBM and EBFM felt that EBM represented the ultimate (though not always attainable) goal for marine resource managers. In some instances, EBFM represents a first step toward true EBM. Kevern Cochrane of FAO says that in most cases, an ecosystem approach to fisheries is a necessary but often not sufficient part of the sustainable use of aquatic ecosystems. "Managing the whole ecosystem is best, but managing individual parts can still be useful even when the whole cannot be achieved," he says.

For the purposes of this issue, MEAM generally considers "true" EBM to include EBFM as a component. However, there may be cases when EBFM is more than a subset of EBM - i.e., where the entry point to ecosystem-based management is unexpected. Take the case of managing parrotfish fisheries in the Caribbean region. Whereas coral reef managers have typically focused on direct impacts on reef ecology, reef ecologist Peter Mumby of the University of Exeter (U.K.) advocates using fisheries management in and beyond reef areas to manage reef ecosystems. Active management of these important grazing fishes not only contributes to their sustainable use (the goal of fisheries management), but also plays a key role in managing entire coral reef ecosystems. Mumby says grazing by parrotfishes has been shown to reduce the amount of seaweed on Caribbean reefs and help increase the rate of colonization of new corals. "This means that ensuring an adequate amount of fish grazing is at least one practical step toward improving the resilience of coral populations, and therefore the ecosystem services provided by reef habitats," says Mumby. "Carefully designed fisheries regulations for parrotfishes could have a great impact on the species themselves, but also on the biodiversity and functioning of the entire ecosystem."

Another way to look at the EBM-EBFM link is to think of EBM as the starting point for better fisheries management. A 1986 FAO publication by John Caddy and Gary Sharp introduced this way of looking at fisheries long before the terms EBM or ecosystem approach were in currency. (The publication, "An Ecological Framework for Marine Fishery Investigations", is at In effect this is Peter Mumby's point turned around. To achieve true EBFM, we need to re-orient ourselves toward EBM (see Caddy's essay in this issue of MEAM).

Cochrane agrees, saying that ecosystem-based management is an important complement to existing fisheries management approaches. When asked whether EBFM is possible without EBM, Cochrane suggests that the answer depends on the specifics of each case. "Most commonly, a number of sectors will be impacting on an ecosystem and real progress will be possible only if they are all addressed simultaneously within a broad EBM," he says. "However, there are almost certainly some instances where fisheries will be strongly dominant - for example in some cases on the high seas - and therefore big strides could be made through EBFM alone."

Embedding fisheries management in a broader approach

Jake Rice, Senior National Advisor - Ecosystem Sciences for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says that the logical extension of attempting to balance "diverse societal objectives" must be that, as far as feasible, fisheries management should be embedded within a broader ecosystem approach. "The best approach is to start with societal objectives (e.g., as reflected in relevant policies), and then to assess the greatest threats to achieving those objectives," says Rice. "With current management practices, fisheries will often emerge as being a source of important objectives and also the source of a number of different threats (over-exploitation of target species, impacts on conservation species, impacts on critical habitats, etc.). As long as those threats are not swamped by impacts from other sectors, they will be mitigated at least by taking action in the fisheries sector, with or without collaboration with other sectors."

However, small-scale or piecemeal attempts at practicing EBM will not necessarily result in desired outcomes. Jackie Alder, Director of the Marine and Coastal Branch of UNEP's Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, acknowledges that tools traditionally thought of as getting us closer to EBM are potentially powerful, such as large-scale, well-managed protected areas. But ignoring the EBFM component by not addressing fisheries management in the broader context, she says, can doom such initiatives to failure. "In the excitement to create effective MPAs, conservationists sometimes ignore the broader fisheries management issues, and do so at their peril," says Alder.

Cochrane suggests the best approach is not to differentiate between the two at the start. "Rather, identify the impacts on the ecosystem, prioritize them in terms of the risk they represent, and then address the higher priority issues," he says. "That will tell you whether it should be EBFM, or 'EBCDM' for coastal development, or 'EBOGM' for oil and gas, etc.," he says. He adds that combining two or more of these in an overarching EBM approach is also possible.

Practical steps to successful EAF or EBFM

Agreeing that a big-picture integrated approach to management is better than a narrow sectoral one is one thing. Creating management that mitigates negative impacts on ecosystems is another. The marine environment presents special challenges given both the scale of management and the information base upon which management must rest.

A 1999 report from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service on ecosystem-based fisheries management described the problem of implementing EBFM and EBM in the face of uncertainty and incomplete knowledge:

"We know that the traditional single-species approach of fisheries is tractable, but we also know that it may not be sufficient. We know that an ecosystem perspective is desirable, but it is complex and unpredictable." (The report is available at

Boze Hancock of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) says the practical application of EBM and EBFM means that management must be "big and sensible", although what that means may be open to interpretation. Hancock prefers to call such approaches "multi-objective" as opposed to EBM. "We're forced to make the problems smaller in an effort to make them tractable," he says. "Practically, this means managers and planners tackle a few key interactions at a time." An example is TNC's work on restoring bays and estuaries through its Shellfish Restoration Network ( The purpose is to restore the estuarine ecosystems back to coupled benthic/pelagic systems instead of predominantly pelagic ones. In practice this means increasing the number of shellfish, which play key roles in ecological processes crucial for the benthic ecosystems. "Achieving this increase involves addressing the multiple human (including fishery) and environmental influences that impact the shellfish populations and ultimately the estuarine ecosystems," says Hancock.

Depending on the circumstances, such ecosystem plans move from EBFM to true EBM. "Where there are important threats from other sectors, unless those are also addressed, the ecosystem will remain under pressure," says Rice. "If those threats impact fishery resources directly or indirectly, the full, potential, sustainable benefits from fisheries will not be attained."

Rice sums up the practical links between EBM and EBFM. "Different agencies and jurisdiction have very different appetites for integrated management, and different legal mandates to be responsive to different things," he says. "On a case-by-case basis the most amenable entry point will differ. There is very little to be lost and much to be gained by taking the entry point offered by the problem and the governance process and building from there. There is unquestionably a place for ecosystem approaches to fisheries management even if full EAM is not in place or even on the near horizon. The further away the governance processes are from the full suite of necessary steps, the more important it is to start on EAFM, because it will take everyone on a path that makes EAM more likely, and eventually certain."

For more information:

Jake Rice, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa, Canada. E-mail: ricej [at]

Kevern Cochrane, FAO, Rome, Italy. E-mail: Kevern.cochrane [at]

Peter Mumby, University of Exeter, Exeter, England. E-mail: P.J.Mumby [at]

Jackie Alder, UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya. E-mail: Jacqueline.Alder [at]

Boze Hancock, TNC, Rhode Island, U.S. E-mail: bhancock [at]

For links to additional publications on ecosystem-based fisheries management, go to

BOX: Defining terms

Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM)

Ecosystem-based management is "a management approach that considers all ecosystem components, including humans and the physical environment, rather than managing one issue or resource in isolation." Source: NatureServe, a U.S.-based conservation NGO

"Ecosystem-based management of coastal regions aims to restore and sustain the health, productivity, resilience, and biological diversity of coastal systems and promote a sustainable and enhanced quality of life for people who depend on them. Grounded in science, EBM seeks to foster management regimes that will be effective over ecological-rather than political-spans, and that address ecological, social, and economic goals...." Source: Marine and Coastal Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative, David and Lucile Packard Foundation

Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management (EBFM) and Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF)

"Ecosystem based fisheries management (EBFM) considers the impact fisheries have on all components of the broader marine environment. This includes managing the impact of fishing on target species as well as byproduct species, bycatch species, threatened, endangered and protected species, habitats and communities." Source: Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Commonwealth statutory body for management of Australian fisheries

"An Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries strives to balance diverse societal objectives, by taking account of the knowledge and uncertainties about biotic, abiotic and human components of ecosystems and their interactions and applying an integrated approach to fisheries within ecologically meaningful boundaries." Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

What is the difference between "ecosystem-based management" and an "ecosystem approach to management"? (Or, similarly, between ecosystem-based fisheries management [EBFM] and an ecosystem approach to fisheries management [EAFM]?)

The terms ecosystem-based management (EBM) and ecosystem approaches to management (EAM) are sometimes used interchangeably. However, some practitioners - particularly in the field of fisheries management - say the distinction between approaching management with ecosystems in mind as opposed to basing management on ecosystems is a subtle but important one. Essentially, they say, the difference lies in how heavily ecosystem considerations are weighted in decision-making.

Jake Rice, Senior National Advisor - Ecosystem Sciences for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, chooses to use EAM rather than EBM, and EAFM rather than EBFM. "All the agreements I know of have language where States agree 'to adopt an Ecosystem Approach to Management', whether of fisheries or of everything," he says. "They do not agree to base management on ecosystem considerations." In Rice's interpretation, an Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries is one that weighs ecosystem considerations along with all the other considerations in a decision, including socioeconomic concerns. This is broadly consistent with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which has also opted for the term ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) rather than EBFM.

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of news. Simply visit any news post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.