Communicating Ecosystem-based Management
Renata Ferrari Legorreta/Marine Photobank
Stakeholder involvement and community participation, such as these students cleaning a beach in the Dominican Republic, is an essential aspect of ecosystem-based management initiatives.
There are several components to consider when developing effective communication about ecosystem-based management. These include:
- Why do you wish to talk about EBM in the first place?
- Are you hoping to simply explain ecosystem-based management, or are you hoping to implement it?
- This should determine the audience you select, the message you develop and the action you ask them to take with your communication.
- Are they scientists, industry representatives, journalists, natural resource managers, students, or some other group? This will be important as you consider their perspective on ocean health and management issues. Be mindful of the fact that your audience’s perspective is probably very different from your own.
- What is their level of understanding about ocean management in their region? You may need to help them connect the problems they perceive to the underlying management problems that are allowing these problems to persist or grow.
- What is their level of understanding about ecosystem-based management? Be prepared to explain ecosystem-based management from scratch, reinforce their understanding or correct their misperceptions as required.
- What is your audience’s perception of you? Do they consider you to be a trustworthy source of information? Why or why not? If not, would it be better to communicate your message through someone else?
- Ecosystem-based management is complex and multi-faceted. What components are most important to you? Are these the same components that are most important to your audience?
The priority action
- What do you want your audience to do? Is it easy? Will it benefit them? How? If not, what might motivate them to take this action anyway?
The type of information that needs to be conveyed. It could be…
- General: Introduces EBM and the concepts of holism, cumulative effects, emergent properties, resilience and cooperative management
- Audience-driven: Aims at engaging a particular cooperative management audience, such as ports authorities, researchers, managers or fishers. May include issue, action or values-based messages.
- Issue-driven: Focuses on one/several specific issue(s) related to EBM, such as biodiversity loss, coastal erosion, human health or water quality.
- Action-driven: Rallies support for certain action, such as passing a key policy or garnering local support for a management action.
- Values-based: Focuses on a particular characteristic of EBM, such as comprehensive management, equal access to resources, cooperative management or explicit/pro-active decision making.
Certainty of information
- Be careful to represent all necessary scientific information clearly and accurately. How certain is the scientific community about the information you are relaying? If there is uncertainty on a topic or a figure, explain the uncertainty and its evaluation carefully to your audience.
Resources for Getting Started
Suggestions for describing ecosystem-based management
Wolcott Henry/Marine Photobank
A prime example of an ecosystem approach to management, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in central California accommodates a variety of uses, such as resource protection, research, education and recreational activities. The sanctuary hosts the nation’s largest kelp forest, a haven for recreational divers.
When to use the term “ecosystem-based management”
The decision of when to use ecosystem-based management depends on your audience and your relationship to them. Scientists and resource managers are often familiar with the term. Many federal and state agencies are experimenting with ecosystem-based management frameworks in various pilot projects. It is important to make sure your audience is familiar with the term and its components for effective communication.
When to use alternative descriptors like integrated, effective, comprehensive or balanced
With some exceptions, audiences such as coastal residents, ocean industry workers, fishers and elected officials are less familiar with ecosystem-based management and may be confused by the term or interpret it incorrectly. To avoid these potential traps, you may want to avoid saying ecosystem-based management at first (and especially avoid using the acronym "EBM") and focus on other words that were found to resonate with these groups. Our research showed that the best alternate words were: integrated, comprehensive, effective, holistic and balanced.
How to address variable perceptions of “ecosystem”
An ecosystem is a dynamic system formed by the interaction of a community of living organisms with its environment. According to SeaWeb's 2008 poll, most Americans understand the word ecosystem in a broad way, associating the term with things like “the balance of nature,” “all living things” or “food chains.” This level of understanding may be enough for most people to interpret the term ecosystem-based management as a comprehensive or nature-first approach. Our research showed that only a small proportion of Americans can provide a more accurate or technical definition. Therefore, when working at a more detailed level with key stakeholder groups, we recommend reminding participants regularly of its more precise meaning. For example, you could say, "An ecosystem is a dynamic community of plants, animals and microbes together with their physical environment, viewed as a system of interacting and interdependent relationships."
How to address variable perceptions of “management”
The job of ocean and coastal resource management consists, in large part, of managing the activities of humans in and around the natural environment. In the past, terrestrial wildlife managers commonly altered the environment to protect important resources (for example, eliminating predators to protect livestock and boost deer numbers). Today, however, and especially in the marine context, it is only to a much smaller extent that managers manipulate natural resources directly. Our research showed that many people interpret the use of the word management as the direct manipulation of ecosystem elements, such as fish, sharks, or algae. This can hinder their ability to correctly interpret the intent of the phrase ecosystem-based management. Therefore, when working with groups that are relatively unfamiliar with resource management, it is worth explicitly addressing this important nuance.
How to describe ecosystem-based management
Ecosystem-based management (EBM) is a place-based approach to natural resource management that aims to restore and protect the health and function of entire ecosystems and the benefits they provide to organisms, including humans.
Ecosystem-based management provides a holistic framework for developing effective management plans based on an accepted set of guiding principles. These principles are outlined in a 2005 consensus statement signed by more than 220 academic scientists and policy experts. According to these principles, an ecosystem-based management plan should:
- Emphasize the health of the whole ecosystem ahead of the concerns of special interests;
- Be focused on a particular place, with boundaries that are scientifically defined and make sense in nature;
- Account for the ways in which things or actions in that place affect each other;
- Consider the way things or actions in this place can influence or be influenced by things or actions on land (like dams or fertilizers in the watershed), in the air (like air pollution), or in different parts of the ocean (like fishing or oil spills); and
- Integrate the concerns of the environment, society, the economy, and our institutions.
One of the biggest challenges to bringing new stakeholders to the table is that ecosystem-based management is not a tool that has been applied with consistent usage and outcomes in every situation. It is a framework for changing how the oceans are managed. There are many ways to develop an ecosystem-based management or governance plan and, as a result, there is no easy answer to the question: “How do you implement ecosystem-based management?”
How to describe other related concepts
Our research uncovered many terms that, like ecosystem-based management, are potential sources of confusion because non-technical audiences frequently misinterpret them. These terms should only be used when you are certain that your audience is familiar with the vocabulary and concepts. Otherwise, be prepared to carefully describe what they are and do.
Resource managers may implement an ecosystem-based management plan using many different tools and the words used to describe them can be confusing to some audiences. These may include “networks of protected areas,” “marine reserves,” “marine sanctuaries,” “area-based management,” “special marine planning,” “ocean zoning” and “regional or trans-boundary ocean governance.”
Likewise, terms that describe the scientific underpinnings of the ecosystem-based management concept should be used carefully. These include commonly used terms such as “ocean health,” and less common words like “resilience,” “ecosystem services” and “cumulative impacts.”
Use your judgment about when and to what extent you can use these terms so that you do not miss an opportunity to communicate to your audience using words and terms they understand.
SeaWeb's EBM Communications Project
Ecosystem-based management aims is a framework that requires the active participation of governments, ocean and coastal industries, academic researchers and local communities as co-managers of the ocean and its resources. This means that all groups can and should be involved in developing and implementing an ecosystem-based management plan.
As a result, supporters of ecosystem-based management processes continue to search for better ways to engage stakeholders to provide input, help make decisions and create progress. In response, SeaWeb engaged inits Ecosystem-based Management Communications Project from 2006-2010. Outcomes of the project included:
- identifying important stakeholders and conducting eight focus groups and 76 in-depth interviews across the United States.
The stakeholders interviewed included: commercial fishers, aquaculturists, alternative energy startups, port authorities and harbor masters, coastal residents, coastal planners, federal agency representatives, coastal state agency representatives and fisheries managers.
- convening three ecosystem-based management communications workshops in 2007 and 2008, attended by more than 40 U.S. and internationally-focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Click here for a list of contacts invited to the workshops.
- training NGO representatives and other partners on these tools at conferences, workshops and other meetings. These include: Seafood Summit 2009,
International Marine Conservation Congress 2009,
Coastal Zone '09,
New England Aquarium,
NOAA MPA Center,
West Coast EBM Network Meeting 2009,
Port Orford, Oregon, Stakeholders Meeting,
Alaska Pacific University, the
University of California Santa Cruz and many others.
Information generated by these meetings, and by smaller working groups in between meetings, has been essential for our project and the communications materials we produced.