Tundi's Take: Balancing Centralization and Decentralization in Ocean Governance

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM (tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net)

Successful EBM relies on two seemingly contradictory things:

  1. Integration of management activities across large geographic scales and between sectors; and
  2. Planning that is participatory and responds to the special needs and circumstances of each place.

The contradiction is that the first requirement pushes governance in the direction of centralization, while the second is toward decentralization. The optimal condition for EBM strikes a balance between the two, bringing each to bear on different aspects of governance. One way of striking that balance is to establish a "nested hierarchy" of decision-making in resource management, and in allocation of access and use rights.

What does a nested hierarchy look like? At the highest level, centralized government provides leadership, creating a vision for EBM and communicating the need for it. This level of government interfaces with other high-level government agencies to negotiate international or global agreements, taking EBM to the most comprehensive scale possible. At the same time, centralized government can establish an overarching framework for how planning and execution of EBM will occur, setting up within-country regional councils that divest management to more localized government agencies.

At the narrower regional scale, management entities can determine the most appropriate planning processes for implementing the framework. It is here that decisions about goals and objectives for regional EBM can be made, and where processes for harnessing science and involving stakeholders can be set.

The local scale is where true participatory planning is feasible, with the engagement of as many stakeholder groups as possible. At this point, decision-making on EBM occurs as a response to local needs and in the context of local circumstances, including environmental conditions; socio-political, economic, and cultural considerations; and legal or legislative constraints. Here EBM planning can be considered decentralized - even though it results from a coordinated process that is led by centralized government.

Canada uses a nested hierarchy in its approach to EBM. The national government provides leadership and establishes broad policies, such as through the Oceans Act. It also partners with neighboring nations to implement international EBM policies, such as through the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (which, for example, has endorsed a nested hierarchy for planning a North American network of MPAs - http://bit.ly/9UTHP6). The national government, in turn, has divided Canadian waters into 29 marine regions, which serve as frameworks for cooperative planning and management at the regional level. Within each marine region, priority conservation areas are selected. Finally, at the local level within such high-priority areas, many different stakeholders have come together to assess threats and explore the best possible approaches for addressing these threats.

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