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In the expression "Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF)" the terms ecosystem, approach, and fisheries are defined in dictionaries and in the scientific literature. Used together, however, they imply a process using specific means to achieve selected objectives. These objectives are often not explicitly defined in conventional fisheries management and are even more difficult to define clearly in EAF. Following on the Reykjavik Declaration, EAF is recognized as a form of fisheries governance framework, taking its conceptual principles and operational instruments from conventional fisheries management on the one hand, and ecosystem management on the other hand. A number of expressions related to fisheries and ecosystem management have been used to describe related concepts such as: ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM), ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF), environmental management, biodiversity management and ecosystem approach (in the CBD). As modern fields of science-based governance, they all find their roots in the concept and well-grounded academic disciplines of natural resources management (NRM) or wildlife management (Larkin, 1996; Lackey, 1999) but have evolved quite different operational paradigms. They also relate very closely to the already widely used concept of integrated management. These differences are briefly highlighted below.

1.1 Fisheries Management

Modern fisheries management, as practised since the early 1940s, is strongly based on the ecosystem theory but focuses primarily on fishing activity and target fish resources.[2] In inland waters, affected earlier and more strongly than marine waters by environmental problems, it developed as an extension of wildlife management (Lackey, 1999) and involves a substantial amount of direct intervention on the habitat, species composition, etc. In marine ecosystems, however, because the possibility of direct intervention on the ecosystem is limited, management strategies concentrated on controlling human intervention (fishing) while observing proxies for the state of an otherwise opaque ecosystem and fugitive resources. It is defined as "the integrated process of information gathering, analysis, planning, decision-making, allocation of resources and formulation and enforcement of fishery regulations by which the fisheries management authority controls the present and future behaviours of the interested parties in the fishery, in order to ensure the continued productivity of the living resources" (FAO, 1995b). It aims at optimizing the use of fishery resources as a source of human livelihood, food and recreation, dynamically regulating fishing activity, meeting resource-related objectives or constraints, mainly indirectly. It is science-based and has been evolving for 50 years with an increasing recognition of failures (Stevenson, 1973; Garcia 1996a; Goñi, 1998; Sutinen and Soboil, 2003).

Table 1 summarizes these features and offers a schematic comparison (perhaps caricatured) with ecosystem management. Such a comparison is complicated by the large variability observed in the application of these concepts, depending on the geographic area, the governance level (e.g. national, regional or global) and the institutions concerned.

Table 1. Schematic comparison between fisheries and ecosystem management


Fisheries management

Ecosystem management


Sector-based. Vertically integrated. Focusing on target resource and people.

Area-based. Holistic. Loosely cross-sectoral. Focusing on habitats and ecosystem integrity.



Not always coherent or transparent. "Optimal" system output. Social peace.

A desired state of the ecosystem (health, integrity).

Scientific input

Formalized (particularly in regional commissions). Variable impact.

Less formalized. Less operational. Often insufficient. Stronger role of advocacy science.

Decision- making

Most often top-down. Strongly influenced by industry lobbying. Growing role of environmental NGOs.

Highly variable. Often more participative. Strongly influenced by environmental lobbies. Stronger use of tribunals.

Role of the media

Historically limited. Growing as fisheries crisis spreads.

Stronger use of the media.

Regional and global institutions

Central role of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and regional fishery bodies.

Central role of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Regional Seas Conventions.

Geographical basis

A process of overlapping and cascading subdivision of the oceans for allocation of resources and responsibilities.

A progressive consideration of larger-scale ecosystems for more comprehensive management,e.g. from specific areas to entire coastal zones and Large Marine Ecosystems (LME).

Stakeholder and political base

Narrow. Essentially fishery stakeholders. Progressively opening to other interests.

Much broader. Society-wide. Often with support from recreational and small-scale fisheries.

Global instruments

1982 Law of the Sea Convention, UN Fish Stock Agreement and FAO Code of Conduct.

Ramsar Convention, UN Conference on Environment and Development and 1992 Agenda 21, Convention on Biological Diversity and Jakarta Mandate.


Regulation of human activity inputs (gear, effort, capacity) or output (removals, quotas) and trade.

Protection of specified areas and habitats, including limitation or exclusion of extractive human activities. Total or partial ban of some human activities.

1.2 Ecosystem Management

Ecosystem management, as a concept, has been formally around since at least the introduction of conservation ethics by Aldo Leopold in 1966 (in Czech, 1996, and Czech and Krausman, 1997). The concept emerged strongly at global level in the 1970s, initially boosted by the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and strengthened by the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and Convention on Biological Diversity (see Table 1).

Ecosystem management derives from wildlife management, born on land, in range management and forestry. The latter involved direct manipulation of the habitat and population in space and age structure, as well as of human activity - in space, structure and time - with the view to optimizing long-term returns to humans (Lackey, 1998 and 1999). It reflects a stage in a continuing evolution of social values and priorities. It is area-based, and boundaries must be clearly and formally defined, notwithstanding the difficulty. It aims at maintaining ecosystems in the sustainable condition necessary to achieve desired social benefits. To be effective, it requires scientific information as an element in a decision-making process that is fundamentally one of public and private choice. There are plenty of overlapping definitions (Christensen et al., 1996) but a precise, universally accepted definition has yet to emerge (Lackey, 1999).

According to Lackey (1999), ecosystem management is also "the application of ecological, economic, and social information, options, and constraints to achieve desired social benefits within a defined geographic area and over a specified period". Ecosystem management can also be more comprehensively defined as: "a management philosophy which focuses on desired states rather than system outputs and which recognizes the need to protect or restore critical ecological components, functions and structures in order to sustain resources in perpetuity" (Cortner et al., 1994). It involves "management decisions which involve a broad awareness of the consequences of fishing or other human actions to an ecosystem....used to infer the necessity of understanding multispecies interactions and questions of altered structure of the biological community" (ecosystem stability)" (FAO-ACMRR, 1979). It aims at: (1) maintaining viable populations of all native species in situ; (2) representing within protected areas all native ecosystem types across their natural range; (3) maintaining evolutionary and ecological processes; (4) managing over periods of time of sufficient duration to maintain evolutionary potential of species and ecosystems; and (5) accommodating human use and occupancy within these constraints (Grumbine, 1994, cited by Larkin, 1996). The more recent literature tends to stress more the decision-making process (e.g. people's participation, transparency, adaptive management, precaution) than the elements to be conserved.

1.3 Ecosystem Approach

The term is usually used in the form of "ecosystem approach to..." as, for instance, in the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF) or to environmental protection (Gonzalez, 1996). Such an approach "recognizes explicitly the complexity of ecosystems and the interconnections among its component parts" (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2002). In general, the approach is taken as requiring: (1) definition and scientific description of the ecosystem in terms of scale, extent, structure, functioning; (2) assessment of its state in terms of health or integrity[3] as defined by what is acceptable to society; (3) assessment of threats; and (4) maintenance, protection, mitigation, rehabilitation, etc., using (5) adaptive management strategies.

The 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) refers simply to the "ecosystem approach" and defines it as "Ecosystem and natural habitats management... to meet human requirements to use natural resources, whilst maintaining the biological richness and ecological processes necessary to sustain the composition, structure and function of the habitats or ecosystems concerned. Important within this process is the setting of explicit goals and practices, regularly updated in the light of the results of monitoring and research activities".

It is also defined as "a strategy for the integrated management of land, water, and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way", as well as "a strategy reach balance between... conservation, sustainable use, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources" (Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 5), Decision V/6).

It recognizes that "the ecosystem is a functional unit at any spatial scale... that humans are an integral part of many ecosystems... and requires adaptive management techniques." (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2000). Its content is defined by the Twelve Malawi Guiding Principles (see Annex 1). The operational guidance is to: (1) focus on the functional relationships and processes within ecosystems; (2) enhance benefit sharing; (3) use adaptive management practices; (4) carry out management actions at the scale appropriate for the issue being addressed, with decentralization to the lowest level as appropriate, and (5) ensure intersectoral cooperation.

1.4 Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management (EBFM)

The term has been defined (US National Research Council, 1998) as "an approach that takes major ecosystem components and services - both structural and functional - into account in managing fisheries... It values habitat, embraces a multispecies perspective, and is committed to understanding ecosystem processes... Its goal is to rebuild and sustain populations, species, biological communities and marine ecosystems at high levels of productivity and biological diversity so as not to jeopardize a wide range of goods and services from marine ecosystems while providing food, revenues and recreation for humans". The term puts the focus for management on the users. What is managed is the economic activity. The term did not meet with consensus at the 2001 FAO Reykjavik Conference, possibly because some countries took it as implying that the "ecosystem" would become the new "foundation" of fisheries management. This may have been interpreted as giving to environmental considerations pre-eminence over socio-economic and cultural ones, raising concern about equity, political as well as socio-economic costs and feasibility.

1.5 Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF)

The term "Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries" (EAF) was adopted by the FAO Technical Consultation on Ecosystem-based Fisheries Management held in Reykjavik from 16 to 19 September 2002 (FAO, 2003) for various reasons: (1) the reticence expressed by the Reykjavik Conference vis-à-vis the EBFM terminology (see next section); (2) the convenient parallel this term offers with the "Precautionary Approach" to fisheries; and, last but not least, the fact that the term EAF, not being limited narrowly to management, could easily cover also development, planning, food safety, etc., better matching the breadth of the FAO Code of Conduct. The term "approach" indicates that the concept delineates a way of taking ecosystem considerations into more conventional fisheries management, in line with the Reykjavik Conference wisdom. The EAF could be defined as the way, the spirit in which the Code ought to be implemented.

EAF is defined by Ward et al. (2002) as "an extension of conventional fisheries management recognizing more explicitly the interdependence between human well-being and ecosystem health and the need to maintain ecosystems productivity for present and future generations, e.g. conserving critical habitats, reducing pollution and degradation, minimizing waste, protecting endangered species". The Reykjavik FAO Expert Consultation (FAO, 2003) agreed that the "purpose of an ecosystem approach to fisheries is to plan, develop and manage fisheries in a manner that addresses the multiplicity of societal needs and desires, without jeopardizing the options for future generations to benefit from a full range of goods and services provided by marine ecosystems". Therefore, "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".

Despite the distinctions between ecosystem management and fisheries management described above, the underlying concepts remain still fuzzy and tend to overlap. The review above illustrates the fact that the various expressions refer to what appear to be in practice very converging, if not totally similar, processes, aiming at largely overlapping sets of objectives. All ecosystem-based approaches to management of economic activities "rely on similar precepts: the need for sound science, adaptation to changing conditions, partnerships with diverse stakeholders and organizations, and a long-term commitment to the welfare of both ecosystem and human societies" (Kimball, 2001). The various terminologies reflect the relative importance, explicit or not, given respectively to fisheries objectives and to ecosystem conservation in their narrow interpretation.

1.6 Integrated Management (IM)

The ecosystem-related concepts mentioned above have a lot in common and relate very closely to the already widely used concept of integrated management. The latter involves comprehensive planning and regulation of human activities towards a complex set of interacting objectives and aims at minimizing user conflicts while ensuring long-term sustainability. It implies the use of a collaborative/participative approach involving the main stakeholders in a flexible, responsible and transparent planning process, respectful of existing rights and duties. It recognizes the need to protect the ecosystem and the implications of multiple uses and aims at sustainable development. Taking account of uncertainty, it complies with the precautionary approach. It takes account of natural and economic areas and not only administrative or political ones. It specifically identifies ecosystem-oriented objectives and indicators. It acknowledges the fragmentation of the sectoral approaches and the linkages between inland, coastal and ocean uses. It integrates data collection, information and research (assessment) and recognizes traditional knowledge. It develops processes for stakeholders' interaction, particularly in objective setting, planning and implementation, including conflict resolution. It explicitly considers the cumulative effects of human activities, and its implementation is based on integrated management plans (IMPs) (see for instance Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2002). This reading indicates clearly that EBFM and EAF are subsets or aliases of IM, possibly with a greater emphasis on the ecosystem implications.

[2] It is sometimes referred to as Target Resources Oriented Management (TROM; see FAO, 2003).
[3] Note that the terms "health" or "integrity" have a different meaning than in general dictionaries and do not have an agreed operational meaning.

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