reef ecosystem

The reef ecosystem extends beyond its physical boundary to include the neighboring habitats with which it interacts, especially seagrass beds, back-reef lagoons, and mangroves which provide important fish nurseries. All these linked habitats must be considered and managed as parts of a single functional unit. Photos © S. Wear/TNC

Ecosystem based management (EBM) is an integrated management approach that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans. Marine management typically has focused on a few species of interest or on particular sectors, activities, or current concerns. In contrast, EBM takes into account the cumulative impacts and interactions of the range of human activities on the whole ecosystem.

While there are many definitions of EBM, its goal can be simply stated: to maintain an ecosystem in a healthy, productive, and resilient condition so that it can provide the services humans want and need.

EBM is characterized by an emphasis on the protection of ecosystem structure, functioning and key processes, rather than just a few key species or indicators of system state. It is also place-based as it focuses on a specific ecosystem and the range of activities affecting it. EBM explicitly accounts for the interconnectedness among systems, such as between air, land and sea, and it aims to integrate ecological, social, economic and institutional perspectives, recognizing their strong interdependencies.

Ecosystem-based management is built around eight core elements: ref

  • Sustainability — Delivery of ecosystem services or maximizing yields is not the primary focus of EBM; rather, an overarching goal is sustaining ecosystem services through future generations.
  • Goals — Measurable goals that specify future processes and outcomes necessary for sustainability are fundamental to EBM.
  • Sound ecological models and understanding — Research performed at all levels of ecological organization provides the understanding of processes and cross-scale interactions that are crucial to effective EBM.
  • Complexity and connectedness — Biological diversity and structural complexity strengthen ecosystems against disturbance and support adaptation to long-term change.
  • The dynamic character of ecosystems — Change and evolution are inherent in ecosystems, and EBM approaches focus on system processes rather than aiming to preserve a particulate system state.
  • Context and scale — Ecosystem processes operate over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, so that system behavior is highly contextual. EBM approaches need to be designed for specific local circumstances.
  • Humans as ecosystem components — Ecosystem management recognizes the influence of humans on ecosystems, and vice versa.
  • Adaptability and accountability — Understanding of ecosystem function and behavior are evolving, and decisions are often made with incomplete knowledge. Management must be viewed as hypotheses to be tested and improved in a continuous learning approach.

A range of tools and resources are available for coral reef managers wishing to explore the application of EBM (see below). These include comprehensive online resources for understanding and communicating about EBM, and tools for implementing EBM.


Introduction to EBM developed by UNEP (pdf, 10.6M)

EBM website, with special section on Marine Spatial Planning Tools 

Principles and Practice of Ecosystem-Based Management (pdf, 6.5M)

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Last updated April 11, 2018

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