OCEAN BLUE Ecosystem Approach

Ecosystem Approach

The "ecosystem approach" can be defined as the comprehensive integrated management of human activities based on best available scientific knowledge about the ecosystem and its dynamics, in order to identify and take action on influences which are critical to the health of the marine ecosystems, thereby achieving sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and maintenance of ecosystem integrity.[1]

It is vital that the quality and diversity of the marine environment and its component ecosystems[2] are protected, conserved and, where necessary, restored and that all exploited natural resources are used sustainably.

Significant advances are now being made within the frameworks of OSPAR and ICES in developing an integrated, ecosystem-based management approach (the "ecosystem approach") with regard to the protection of the marine environment, the sustainable use[3] of its natural resources and the conservation of its biodiversity[4].

The ecosystem approach is considered to be fundamental to achieving sustainable use and protection of the marine environment. The general intention is that management decisions should consider all consequences of human activities for the marine environment in an integrated way (OSPAR, 2002a).

The need for an Ecosystem Approach

In recent years there has been increasing international recognition of the need to effectively manage the impact of multiple human activities on the marine environment and its ecosystems. Protection of marine ecosystem health is fundamental to sustaining the productive capacity of ecosystem compon-ents, ecosystem stability, marine biodiversity, economic usefulness and the intrinsic, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values that people hold in relation to the marine environment.

The marine environment is subject to a variety of actual and potential threats including alterations of the structure and function of component ecosystems, loss or degradation of biodiversity, loss or degradation of habitats, contamination by hazardous substances, oil, heavy metals, nutrients, radionuclides, micro-biological pollution and litter, and the possible far-reaching consequences of climate change.

A wide range of human activities creates pressures that require management. They include, inter alia:

  • Commercial fishing (unsustainable exploitation, bycatch and discards, disturbance to sensitive habitat types resulting in modifications, dumping of offal and other wastes from boats, marine litter including loss of nets that may result in "ghost fishing", and ecosystem imbalance).

  • Marine aquaculture or "mariculture" (escapes and genetic pollution of wild populations, water quality issues, placement of structures in the marine environment, and trophic and spatial conflicts).

  • Introduction and transfer of non-indigenous species and genetically modified and disease-bearing organisms including through discharge of ships' ballast water and sediments, transport of biofouling on vessel hulls, via mariculture, and from use of bioremediation techniques for treating oil spills.

  • Maritime transport (shipping) and other sea-going craft (exhaust emissions, discharges of hazardous substances, antifouling hull coatings, loss of fuel oil or hazardous cargo as a result of accidents, acoustic pollution and other disturbance to ecologically sensitive habitats and nature conservation areas).

  • Offshore oil and gas exploration, appraisal, production and further development activities (seismic surveying, noise pollution and disturbance, habitat loss or degradation due to construction and placement of structures and dumping of drill cuttings, operational and accidental discharges of drilling fluid contaminated cuttings, produced water, oil, production chemicals and other hazardous substances, deposition of radioactive salts in pipelines, emissions of greenhouse and other gases and particulates including at-sea deposition of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and nutrients (NOx), spillage of oil as a result of accidents).

  • Contamination by hazardous substances (particularly those that are toxic, persistent and liable to bioaccumulate) and heavy metals via discharge, emission and loss from land-based industrial processes, agriculture and commercial and domestic uses, and as a result of disturbance and redistribution of "historic legacy" deposits. Use of dispersant chemicals on oil spills.

  • Human activities in the coastal margins including development of port, harbour, marina and other infrastructure, urbanisation, coastal protection and other coastal engineering works, land reclamation, dredging and dumping of spoil, marine aggregates (sand, gravel and maërl) extraction, and tourism and recreation (loss or degradation of natural habitat through physical, chemical or biological modifications or through disturbance).

  • Construction and placement of installations and structures in the marine environment including renewable energy generating station developments such as offshore windmill installations and wind farms, tidal barrages and wave power installations, artificial reefs for fish, electrical and telecommunications cables, and pipelines including those related to offshore oil and gas activities.

  • Chronic oil pollution from both land-based (riverine input and urban wastewater outfalls) and offshore sources, including offshore oil and gas platforms and illegal discharges of oil and oily water at sea from washing cargo and fuel tanks and flushing bilges or ballast water tanks.

  • Eutrophication caused by excessive inputs of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) from multiple sources including agriculture, industry and domestic, as well as from atmospheric deposition of NOx from ships, which may give rise to (increased) algal blooms and problems of algal toxins and oxygen depletion in benthic waters due to decomposing algae.

  • Microbiological pollution from urban wastewater, including untreated or partially treated sewage, and agricultural slurry discharges.

  • Contamination with litter from shipping (fishing and commercial) and tourism and recreational activities.

  • Climate change — due to increasing concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, mainly as a result of combustion of fossil fuels, but also as a result of major land-use changes such as deforestation, land "improvement" and cattle ranching, and complex ecological feedback mechanisms — is likely to impact on the marine environment through potential changes in temperature, wind climate, water circulation, sea level height, surface waves, bottom topography, storm surges, and precipitation and run-off of freshwater, risk of flooding, erosion, and wetland loss with downstream effects (e.g. changes in salinity, nutrient levels, turbidity and mobilisation of hazardous substances from contaminated land and microbiological pollution from sewers and septic tanks) on marine and coastal morphology, ecosystem structure and function, biological productivity, and human activities and settlement patterns.

To what extent these pressures have actually resulted, or may be predicted to result in environmental impacts on marine ecosystems may not always be clear. Gaps and deficits in our knowledge about the structure (diversity) and functioning (processes) of both local and large-scale marine ecosystems and the fact that both natural and anthropogenic environmental changes take place over long timescales mean that such pressures can go without adequate evaluation and management for long periods of time. Nevertheless, our society continues to have a great impact on the marine environment.

Management systems to control and reduce these pressures and their environmental impact do exist. In general, however, they have conventionally been developed on a sectoral basis resulting in a patchwork of legislation, policies, programmes and management plans at local, national, European Union (EU) and international level.

There is, however, justified hope that the move towards a more holistic and integrative management approach might be able to work around some of these obstacles. The key is to develop linkage between the pieces and place them in an overarching, integrated management framework according to ecosystem principles.

Nowadays, it is internationally accepted that an ecosystem-based approach should be taken to policy-making, environmental assessment and integrated management in which each sector should consider the positive or negative impacts on other sectors and marine and coastal ecosystems in accordance with the precautionary principle.

This view was codified in the overarching international legal instrument the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and is strengthened by the global political commitment to sustainable development recently re-emphasised in the agreed outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, September 2002.

At regional seas and sub-regional level, the 1992 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention), particularly Annex V on the Protection and Conservation of the Ecosystems and Biological Diversity of the Maritime Area, has a major role in supporting the implementation of the "ecosystem approach" as required within the CBD.

At EU level, within the context of the overarching Strategy for Sustainable Development and its environmental component, the Sixth Environment Action Programme, a thematic strategy to protect and conserve the marine environment (the European Marine Strategy) is being developed and is due to be implemented in 2004. The European Commission in its Communication to the Council of the EU and the European Parliament entitled Towards a strategy to protect and conserve the marine environment (COM(2002) 539), which sets out objectives and related actions to implement the European Marine Strategy, has said it will publish proposals in 2004 for developing an ecosystem-based approach, including ecosystem benchmarks and targets to ensure conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity (Action 1).

This should be seen in the context of the overarching timeframe applied to EU policies concerning biodiversity by the European Council summit in Gothenburg in June 2001, which concluded in the context of the debate on sustainable development that a political objective of the EU was to halt biodiversity decline before 2010.

In their Recommendation of 30 May 2002 concerning the implementation of Integrated Coastal Zone Management in Europe (2002/413/EC), the Council and European Parliament recommend that Member States take a strategic approach to the management of their coastal zones, based on, inter alia, protection of the coastal environment, based on an ecosystem approach preserving its integrity and functioning, and sustainable management of the natural resources of both the marine and terrestrial components of the coastal zone.

In response to such international conventions, agreements and EU policies, the Government is expected to strengthen national capability by putting in place legislation and policies to more explicitly incorporate ecosystem considerations within the marine and coastal area management regimes of the State.

As such, the ecosystem approach should be placed central to the National Biodiversity Plan, the National Heritage Plan, and the National Integrated Coastal Zone Management Strategy, as well as a future integrated, national oceans strategy for the protection of Ireland's marine environment, sustainable use of its natural resources and conservation of its biodiversity: an Oceans Policy.

An overarching timeframe was applied to this process by the outcome of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. In its Plan of Implementation, the Summit agreed, inter alia, to encourage the application by 2010 of the ecosystem approach to oceans, seas, islands and coastal areas.

Clearly, Ireland is well placed to implement the ecosystem approach at a much earlier date — by 2006 at the latest, especially given the European Commission's planned 2004 publication date for its proposals for developing the ecosystem approach.

As a result, Ireland could then assume an important role (of benefit to Irish research institutions and jobs) in assisting other coastal States, particular developing countries, to develop and implement the ecosystem approach.

Developing the Ecosystem Approach

The Fifth Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) endorsed the description of the "ecosystem approach" — the primary framework for action under the CBD — as a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way… It is based on the application of appropriate scientific methodologies focused on levels of biological organization which encompass the essential processes, functions and interactions among organisms and their environment. It recognizes that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems. Application of the ecosystem approach will help to reach a balance of the three objectives of the CBD, namely the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources (Article 1).

The expression and measure of ecosystem quality is widely described as an "ecological quality". Within OSPAR, "ecological quality" is defined as an overall expression of the structure and function of the marine ecosystem taking into account the biological community and natural physiographic, geographic and climatic factors as well as physical and chemical conditions including those resulting from human activities (OSPAR, 2002a).

A number of "ecological quality elements"[5] — individual parameters or variables describing the physical, chemical and biological environment of a marine ecosystem - could be used to express the overall ecological quality. For each ecological quality element one can define/chose one or more "ecological quality metric", defined by OSPAR as measurement scales or dimensions by which ecological quality may be measured quantitatively (or, when appropriate, qualitatively) and can at least be considered as being a suitable way to measure the ecological property that the ecological quality element is intended to capture. Various particular points or levels on these metrics can be defined either by science or society. They include an "ecological quality objective" (EcoQO), which is the desired, or target level of an ecological quality (element) and is set relative to a "reference level", defined as the level of ecological quality (element) where the anthropogenic influence on the ecological system is minimal (ICES, 2001; OSPAR, 2002a).

In summary: The development and application of the ecosystem approach focuses on the critical ecological processes, the ecosystem interactions and the chemical, physical and biological environment. Ecological quality is an integral expression of the desired state of an ecosystem, reflecting basic ecosystem properties and human use. Ecological quality objectives (EcoQOs) are specific expressions of the desired level of ecological quality, determined by science and/or society.

Development process
Ireland's marine area[6] is part of the OSPAR Convention maritime area and it is the OSPAR Commission that is instrumental in developing the ecosystem approach in this North-East Atlantic regional seas context.

The development and implementation of the ecosystem approach to the management and protection of the North Sea (OSPAR Region II) within the North Sea Conference (NSC) framework is the pilot project for delivery of the ecosystem approach to other regions as well as to the OSPAR maritime area as a whole. The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is closely involved in the OSPAR/NSC work programmes, particularly the development of ecological quality objectives (EcoQOs) for the North Sea, in addition to pursuing its own work programme to develop an ecosystem-based approach to integrated fisheries and environmental management.

With the adoption of the Bergen Declaration in March 2002, North Sea Ministers agreed to implement the ecosystem approach and a conceptual framework to guide ecosystem-based management, and to make use of EcoQOs as a tool for setting clear operational environmental objectives directed towards specific management issues and serving as indicators for ecosystem health. The development by OSPAR/ICES of operational EcoQOs for the North Sea is at a relatively advanced stage[7]. It has also been agreed within OSPAR that a major element of the 2003 Ministerial Meeting of the OSPAR Commission (MMC 2003) should be a statement of the general approach to be taken on the application of the ecosystem approach, including the role played by EcoQOs (OSPAR, 2002b).

However, only a small number, if any, of these North Sea EcoQOs are likely to be suitable for direct translation to the management of Ireland's marine area (which comprises parts of OSPAR Regions III and V). It may turn out that a few North Sea EcoQOs are suitable following some modification. Nevertheless, the North Sea pilot project does constitute an appropriate basis and guide to the development of the ecosystem approach and suite of EcoQOs specific to Ireland's marine area.

An important feature of the ecosystem approach is that it calls for strong stakeholder participation, which places a spotlight on human behaviour as the central management dimension. Also of some significance is that the ecosystem approach recognises that in order to develop a coherent policy for addressing the impacts of multiple human uses of marine ecosystems it is necessary to consider how impacts occur in space and over time, as well as how different factors interrelate (complexity). Another dimension to these impacts is their detectability (or quantifiability) and the relationship to the precautionary approach whereby the lack of full scientific information on the magnitude of the impact of an activity in or on the marine environment cannot be used as a reason for delaying policy action.

At EU level, to facilitate the development of the European Marine Strategy, stakeholder representatives were invited to participate at the Conference on the Development of a European Strategy for the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment, Køge, Denmark, 4-6 December 2002. The Køge Conference discussed and reached agreement on, inter alia, a roadmap to guide the development and implementation of an integrated ecosystem approach to the assessment and management of the marine environment and its resources within the European Marine Strategy. The Køge Conference concluded, inter alia, that:

  • The concept of the ecosystem approach should be kept simple in order to both explain and gain the necessary levels of political and public support.

  • The ecosystem approach should build from existing appropriate initiatives such as the EU Habitats, Birds and Water Framework Directives, the NSC Bergen Declaration, and work under OSPAR, ICES and others on ecological quality objectives.

  • Existing research and monitoring results should be assessed for relevant information and where appropriate new research should be directed in order to provide necessary information to develop the ecosystem approach.


1. Definition adopted by European stakeholders at the Conference on the Development of a European Strategy for the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment, Køge, Denmark, 4-6 December 2002.

2. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (Article 2) defines "ecosystem" as a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit.

3. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (Article 2) defines "sustainable use" as the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations.

4. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (Article 2) defines "biodiversity" as the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are a part: this includes diversity within species and between species and of ecosystems.

5. Sometimes referred to as "ecological qualities".

6. Comprising the territorial sea (or "foreshore", 0-12 nautical miles measured from the low-water line along the coast), contiguous zone (12-24 nautical miles), exclusive economic zone (EEZ, 12-200 nautical miles) and continental shelf (or "seabed territory", to a maximum of 350 nautical miles) as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS).

7. Following further development work, the 2005 OSPAR Commission meeting will complete the adoption of a comprehensive and consistent scheme of EcoQOs for the North Sea.


ICES, 2001. Report of the ICES Advisory Committee on Ecosystems, 2001. ICES Cooperative Research Report, No. 249.

OSPAR, 2002a. Background Document on the Development of Ecological Quality Objectives (EcoQOs) for the North Sea. OSPAR Commission ASMO 02/7/Info.1.

OSPAR, 2002b. Report on progress and further work on the Development of Ecological Quality Objectives. OSPAR Commission OSPAR 02/9/2.