Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Charting a Course toward Ecosystem-Based Management in the Gulf of Mexico

Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

Charting a Course toward Ecosystem-Based Management in the Gulf of Mexico

Article excerpt


It is becoming generally accepted that effective management of human impacts on the environment requires consideration of all interconnected ecosystem components. This approach, incorporated in the principle of "ecosystem-based management," has for years been the subject of much discussion in academic and government circles, and many distinguished authors have offered definitions and recommendations for its implementation. (1) From these, three common themes emerge: systems management, meaningful integration of people, and adaptive management.

Some success in applying ecosystem-based management has been realized on land. (2) Progress on land has been facilitated by a relatively sophisticated land management system in the United States: Land ownership is clearly defined and our understanding of the interactions of terrestrial ecosystem components, including the way they are affected by various human activities, is relatively advanced. These characteristics, however, are not shared by marine environments.

Several features of marine ecosystems make them particularly difficult to understand and manage:

(1) Living and nonliving marine resources are difficult to inventory and monitor.

(2) The vast majority of marine resources are held in the public trust, but private interests are deeply invested in their use.

(3) Many land-based activities significantly affect marine environments, but the understanding of relationships between onshore and offshore processes is weak.

(4) The scale at which management activities are needed varies and is difficult to identify.

While the concept of ecosystem-based management has evolved and gained growing recognition, there are numerous logistical, legal, and political barriers to effective implementation. As a result, marine systems continue to be managed around either single living marine species or objectives related to single uses, such as fishing or navigation.

In recent years, two expert national ocean commissions identified several factors as principal barriers to effective ocean and coastal management: a dearth of interagency collaboration, a lack of coordination across jurisdictional levels, and a suite of laws that are too often conflicting, overlapping, and confusing. (3) As a solution, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy ("USCOP"), in its 2004 report, recommended shifting toward an ecosystem-based approach, (4) as did the privately funded Pew Oceans Commission in its 2003 report. (5) In addition, both commissions proposed the implementation of ecosystem-based management through regional ocean governance approaches, but offered different ideas for the functions and authorities that regional ocean governance structures should assume. (6) Regional ocean governance also appears as a feature, albeit briefly mentioned, in the Bush Administration's response to the USCOP report, the U.S. Ocean Action Plan. (7)

This paper discusses three elements important for moving regional ocean governance approaches forward on the path toward ecosystem-based management and describes frameworks for regional ocean governance laid out by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, the Pew Oceans Commission, and the Bush Administration's U.S. Ocean Action Plan. This paper then focuses on the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a regional management approach underway in the Gulf of Mexico region, and describes its process and progress thus far. Finally, certain aspects of the Alliance are discussed in relation to the three essential elements.


Marine ecosystem-based management remains a confusing term. The following definition is synthesized from several published definitions: (8)

   Marine ecosystem-based management is an integrated approach to
   management that focuses on cumulative impacts of multiple sectors,
   considers all interconnected parts of ecosystems, and manages
   human actions that impact marine ecosystems on the basis of
   ecological boundaries, with particular attention to ecosystem
   structure, functions, and processes. … 
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