ETHICS OF THE OCEAN: The Real Invitation of Marine Ecosystem-Based Management

Ecosystem: a community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

The definition seems straightforward. To define an ecosystem, simply pick a habitat, identify the creatures within it, and draw a line around the area that encompasses them all. 

Simple, that is, until one considers the ocean. Marine ecosystems don’t have clear boundaries—no rivers, mountains, or urban zones to split the sea into discrete parts. The ocean is a vast expanse of uninterrupted blue, shifting and churning with currents and tides. Beneath the surface, life freely flows. Plankton drifts in thick schools, fish follow the winding paths of eddies, whales travel thousands of miles to meet mates. Organisms interact in myriad relationships—predation and symbiosis and competition, changing over space and time to form webs of interactions. The interconnection of the ocean includes human beings, too. We depend on the sea for food, climate regulation, recreation, and countless economic gains. Our actions—coastal development, fishing, pollution, fossil fuel emissions, deep-sea mining, and many others—impact the ocean. The sea is intricate and ever-changing, beyond our capacity to fully model, predict, or control. Yet modern threats to the ocean—rising seas, climbing temperatures, falling pH, depleted fisheries—make prediction crucial to guide conservation policies and ensure the future wellbeing of the marine world. 
Scientists and policymakers are well aware of the tension between the ocean’s complexity and the need for decisive action. The awareness has motivated a new frontier of marine conservation—“ecosystem-based management”(EBM), a holistic framework to guide management decisions. Two of the big players in ocean policy—the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy—define EBM this way:
“Ecosystem-based management is an integrated approach to management that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans. The goal of ecosystem-based management is to maintain an ecosystem in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so that it can provide the services humans want and need.” (1)
The intentions behind ecosystem-based management are sound. The EBM framework acknowledges that it’s not enough to protect a single marine species in isolation. The wellbeing of one species depends on the rest of the system in ways we can’t predict or foresee. So to conserve one part, we must conserve the whole. Furthermore, EBM explicitly addresses the relationship between humans and the ocean. Anthropogenic interests—the preservation of services that humans want and need—are acknowledged in the very definition. 
These two components of EBM, though well-intentioned and important, also present challenges for its implementation. According to the first part of the definition, EBM relies on our ability to identify and delineate the “entire ecosystem”—a feat that is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to do in the sea. Where exactly do we draw the boundaries? Given the interconnected and porous nature of marine environments, how can we be sure we’ve captured all the important species? The first part of this article describes one example of the kind of science that addresses these questions—connectivity models, and their strengths and limitations.
But the larger challenge of EBM— and its powerful invitation—lies in the second half of the definition: the human component. Even if we could quantitatively model the ecology of a marine habitat, such models would only capture part of the system. To truly apply EBM to the ocean, we need frameworks that capture the social, cultural, economic, and behavioral factors that mediate human interactions with the sea. The second half of this article describes efforts to explore this human-ocean relationship: coupled social-ecological models, re-examination of environmental ethics, valuing of local and indigenous knowledge, and interdisciplinary study of the ocean’s “peopled” history (2). The success of EBM—and its ultimate value—depends not on our ability to model or predict all the dynamics of an ecosystem, but on our willingness to reconsider our human relationship toward the sea from multiple angles and disciplines. EBM calls us to look beyond the traditional human-nature divide and acknowledge a simple fact: humans are part of, rather than separate from, ocean ecosystems. We must be willing to critically examine this relationship and adopt an environmental ethic that mirrors the complexity of the sea. 
Section 1. Connectivity Models: Advances and Limitations
Ecosystem-based management calls for protection of an “entire” ecosystem in “healthy, productive, and resilient condition” (1). To fulfill this objective, we must start with several basic questions: Where does the ecosystem begin? Where does it end? What do terms like “healthy” and “resilient” mean?
For the ocean, these questions are surprisingly difficult to answer—a fact that reveals the first major challenge to implementation of EBM. Consider a common reef species: the bicolor damselfish (Stegastes paritus). Like most reef fish, damselfish begin life in a pelagic larval stage—floating, swimming, or drifting through open sea (3). Eventually, damselfish “settle” or “recruit” to a reef, the scientific term for finding a patch of coral for a permanent home. The dispersal and settlement processes make it very hard to determine the origin of the damselfish in any given reef. Are they neighbors from the reef next door? Self-recruits whose parents used to live here? Or strangers from hundreds of miles away? And damselfish are just one species among many interactions that scientists must consider. 
The questions behind a single fish reveal a paradox at the core of marine EBM. The same complexity and interconnection of the ocean that make EBM so necessary are exactly the characteristics that render it difficult to implement. Marine management must take into account the ecosystem as a whole, yes. But it’s not always obvious where this ecosystem begins and ends, how it behaves, or how it will change.
In response to this challenge, EBM has fueled recent advancements in the field of quantitative ecological modeling. Some of the most promising models focus on marine ecosystem connectivity: the exchange of individuals between separate areas of the ocean. Studies of dispersal examine the biological processes (swimming rates, feeding, predation) and oceanographic factors (currents, topography, temperature zones) that influence the pathway from larvae to reef (4). Other studies focus on recruitment—survival rates, density-dependence, competition, and environmental cues that influence settlement (3). A third area of research compares the genomes of fish from different geographic areas, assessing the scale of genetic exchange over space and time (5). Putting all this together, scientists emerge with models: complex tools to predict connectivity, representing powerful collaborations between ecologists, geneticists, oceanographers, and theoreticians. (6) 
But despite recent advances, connectivity models have several key limitations. Most models are context-dependent, sensitive to specific habitats at a given time. As Rosenberg and McLeod write, “The temporal and spatial scales of many experimental or monitoring studies are simply too small to be relevant to management beyond very local scales” (7). The obvious response, then, is to keep striving for more advanced models to capture the complexity of marine systems. But this advancement raises issues of its own. The more complex a model becomes, the harder it is to implement. Many fisheries rulebooks extend for thousands of pages, with daunting descriptions of the regulations for a given area, season, and country (7). Such tools are unwieldy and don’t always translate well between stakeholders. The most complete and all-encompassing scientific models mean nothing if they can’t be used by policy-makers, conservation agencies, and the public—the people who work to make conservation happen on the ground. 

The wellbeing of one species depends on the rest of the system in ways we can’t predict or foresee. So to conserve one part, we must conserve the whole.

The strengths and limitations of ecological models reveal a central tension of ecosystem-based management. On the one hand, EBM invites an important and humbling realization—the sea is interconnected and complex, and we should keep this in mind in our management efforts. But in doing so, EBM risks setting an impossible standard: that we somehow need to model or predict all of these complex processes and define an entire ecosystem before we start to conserve. This paradox rests on a problem of scope and scale. Management, by nature, occurs in a delimited space and involves drawing boundaries and taking discrete actions (8). The ocean itself transcends these boundaries in ways that are difficult to explain and predict.  
This tension could lead to discouragement and inertia. As McLeod and Rosenberg say, “Waiting to improve policy approaches until better information becomes available may well mean that the necessary information never will be developed, and even worse, that marine ecosystems will continue to decline and undergo dramatic shifts” (7). But another take is possible. EBM provides an invitation to explore a paradox. We must act with awareness of complexity and interdependence, while simultaneously admitting that we can’t know everything about the natural world. The future of EBM depends on our ability to acknowledge this tension and ask: How can we take action toward responsible management nonetheless?
Section 2. Oceans as “Peopled” Places: Re-examining human relationships with the sea
In the  absence of full knowledge of the dynamics and boundaries of ecosystems, what other tools might guide successful management? The answer can be found in the second half of the definition of EBM—the human component. There’s a reason that EBM is called “ecosystem-based management” rather than “ecosystem management.” The latter implies that it’s possible to control or manage an entire ecosystem—a feat which, given our scientific limits, is impossible and unadvisable. Ecosystem-based management, on the other hand, “focuses on managing human activities, rather than deliberately manipulating or managing entire ecosystems” (1). The objective is not to manage systems, but to manage people’s impact on systems, shifting the focus and goals of EBM. 
This viewpoint acknowledges an unavoidable truth of marine conservation: most decisions about the ocean do come from anthropocentric moral reasoning. Our human interests—economic social, and cultural—invariably influence the way we interact with the sea. Rather than ignoring this fact, we can lean into it, examining the priorities that guide decision-making. The limits of our ecological models are not a dead end, but an invitation: a chance to clarify the historical and cultural relationship of people to the ocean, re-examining our ethical stance toward that natural world.
Coupled social-ecological models: Incorporating human behavior
A first step toward incorporating human interests into EBM models is intuitive. If humans are part of ecosystems, why not merely include human behavior as a variable in our ecological models? Recent literature on EBM does just that, producing coupled “social-ecological models” that combine socio-economic factors with traditional biophysical and ecological variables. For example, researchers in Guam took a quantitative ecological model—a combination of oceanography, connectivity, and life history for reef fish species—and combined this model with considerations of fishing and diving activities (9). What does “resilience” or “productivity” mean for different human stakeholder groups? It turns out that divers have specific goals for a reef: conservation of charismatic species, coral cover, species abundance, and water clarity. Fishermen, on the other hand, prioritize high species abundance and biomass, particularly of fish with economic value. The researchers asked, What combination of management actions would maximize the factors for each stakeholder group? How would an increase in one industry impact the other or change the ecosystem as a whole? 
The results were complicated. No single management strategy could optimize the ecosystem value for divers and fishermen at the same time. If diving is the main objective, a management scenario of zero fishing provided optimal results, maximizing water clarity and charismatic species. But to achieve these results required no-take fishing zones, threatening the commercial and subsistence needs of fishermen. The best compromise involved land-based watershed management, controlling the pollution and sedimentation to benefit both fishermen and divers. Such a strategy would require regulation of development, which interferes with other important economic interests and tourism itself. Not only do trade-offs exist between human interests and ecological wellbeing, but there are often competing objectives within the human realm alone. 
These findings may seem obvious—the concept of stakeholder analysis, weighing the pros and cons of management for different users, is a common theme in conservation dialogue. But the Guam study raises an important point. Ecological models, even those that include human behavior, activities, and economics, do not produce a clear answer about exactly what we should do to conserve. Coupled social-ecological models can clarify the outcomes of certain human behaviors and help predict the effect of these outcomes on human wellbeing. Scientists can help clearly delineate and predict the tradeoffs and compromised of various policy actions (10). But in the end, we’re still left with normative choices. Which human interests do we value most? Faced with a tradeoff between the wellbeing of certain species and our own human gains, which will we choose? 
Environmental ethics: What are we managing for?
The questions provoked by coupled social-ecological models show how EBM, at its core, rests on issues of ethics. The strategy forces us to examine the motivations behind conservation—how we justify our actions and what “success” looks like. Kathleen Dean Moore & Roly Russell point out that the moral frame of most conservation policy is consequentialist—a view in which policies are judged by their outcomes. “Even the superficially simple question, ‘What are we managing for?,’ presupposes that results justify processes,” they write (11). 
We see a manifestation of this consequentialist ethic in many models of ecosystem service trade-offs. Most coupled social-ecological models focus on economic drivers, such as profit maximization, as the end goal. In Guam, high-quality diving was desirable because it brings tourism revenue. Healthy fisheries were valued for their commercial worth. Not only are we judging the “success” of conservation by its outcomes, but those outcomes are often focused on extraction of material goods or accumulation of wealth for human beings.
But an anthropocentric consequentialist ethic is not the only way to approach conservation. Dean Moore and Russell suggest that other ethical frames may be more fruitful to guide EBM decisions. We could reason from a virtue ethic, one that emphasizes the character and intention of an action rather than its outcome. Rather than asking, “What do we want from the natural resource?” we could ask, “What do we want from ourselves?” (11). 
This virtue ethic would yield a different set of questions for the study of Guam’s reefs. Instead of asking, “Which  actions will maximize fishery yields or tourist dollars?”, we could consider non-commercial values of a reef. Are fish used for cultural or traditional celebrations, household consumption, or barter (9)? Do tourism dollars capture the value of “recreation,” or are there more qualitative and personal values from scuba diving on a reef? Must human interactions always be transactional and profit-driven? According to Dean Moore and Russell, reasoning from a virtue ethic leads us to powerful questions about human character and intention: “Should we learn to share? Should we develop new concepts of the commons? Can there be human thriving without ecosystem thriving?” (11).
This last question is crucial. It reveals a tension at the foundation of EBM. By claiming that humans are members of ecosystems, EBM introduces two competing notions of good: the desire to maximize both ecological stability and the goods and services that promote human well-being (11). On the one hand, we can and should take human interests into account and acknowledge our role in ocean systems. Yet at the same time, EBM calls us to take an ecocentric moral view: “a framework for policies that take into account the wellbeing of the system (or biodiversity) to be an end in itself” (11). According to the definition of EBM, there shouldn’t be a conflict here, because humans are intrinsic members of ecosystems. But in practice, this is exactly the point where discussion of policies and priorities often breaks down. 
This human-nature debate fuels some of the most heated controversy in the ocean policy world today. Debates rage about human rights versus nature rights, local interests versus global conservation agendas, and top-down versus bottom-up management plans. In a book titled The Controversy over Marine Protected Areas: Science Meets Policy, Alex Caveen distinguishes between “Nature Protectionists,” who advocate extensive areas of no fishing, and “Social Conservationists,” who advocate conventional fisheries management that still enables extraction (12). Where should ecosystem-based management fall between these categories? The definition of EBM is a framework, not an instruction manual for specific policies. Does protecting a “whole” ecosystem mean assigning Marine Reserves, areas closed to all extraction? Or does it translate to policies like fisheries catch limits and quotas, acknowledging that humans have rights to extract from the sea? 
These tensions are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Rather than presenting a drawback, however, this conflict illuminates an imperative area for future research of EBM. Exploring the breakdown between human and ecological interests requires re-examining perceptions about the human relationship with the ocean. In an effort to own up to anthropogenic climate change, modern conservation dialogue often positions humans primarily as negative forces toward the ocean. We develop our coasts, pollute our watersheds, deplete our fisheries, and burn fossil fuels (13). Furthermore, a long intellectual tradition, spanning science to literature to anthropology, implicitly or explicitly separates “nature” and “society,” positioning human actions as outside the “pristine” natural world (14). “Tragedy-of-the-Commons” frameworks depict humans as selfish independent actors who, left to our own devices, will deplete our natural resources in favor of short term gain (15). At best, people are seen as separate from ocean ecosystems. At worst, we’re an actively negative influence on the sea.  
In the face of these characterizations, it’s no wonder that conflict arises between human and ecological interests. If we accept a purely negative human-ocean relationship, or a relationship that places humans outside of nature, then it seems true—EBM does indeed contain a defeating contradiction. The key, then, is to consider how we might talk back to these assumptions—how to focus on “the richness and complexity of the ocean’s human dimensions, long underestimated and unwritten” (13). 

Debates rage about human rights versus nature rights, local interests versus global conservation agendas, and top-down versus bottom-up management plans.

To begin, we can turn to the people who live at the edge of the human-ocean interface every day: local and indigenous coastal communities. Myriad examples support the effectiveness of local and traditional knowledge for marine management. For example, fishermen in the West Solomon Islands described key elements of parrotfish ecology, correctly predicting target areas for conservation and monthly aggregations, years before scientific models reached the same conclusions (16).  The ancient Hawaiian managed watershed, or ahupua’a, provides an example of holistic management far before EBM was conceptualized. Rivers, reefs, and lagoons were regarded as a single entity, an interconnected whole that provided the livelihood for a community. This system was protected by complex social customs to guard against exploitation and to respond to variation in climate and weather—a prime example of the resilience theory that often guides today’s EBM plans (17).
These examples merely gesture to the myriad cases, past and present, when local and indigenous knowledge has led to effective conservation. Such knowledge is often undervalued in the Western scientific realm because it is considered qualitative and intuitive rather than quantitative and objective (17). The effectiveness of local strategies, however, makes a strong case for bottom-up engagement in EBM policies, rather than top-down external control. Where purely scientific models fail to provide enough information for policy recommendations, or where the culture and livelihood of communities are involved, we can and should base our decisions on consideration of the people who live at the edge of these questions every day. 
Engagement with local and indigenous communities makes it clear that the relationship between humans and the ocean is not solely negative, but rather vital and complex. But this is only the first step toward themes that should be investigated and applied on a much larger scale. As McLeod writes, “In addition to people as culprits of ocean change, we can describe people as cooperative, recuperative, restorative agents of ocean change. People affect, and are affected by, the oceans in positive, negative, and neutral ways” (18). We need an area of scholarship that digs into the complex nature of this relationship and examines how and why a negative characterization came to be. We need to examine, as Bolster writes, 
“[h]ow different groups of people made themselves in the context of marine environments, how race, class, fashion, and geo-politics influence the exploitation and conservation of marine resources, how individual and community identities (and economies) have changed as a function of the availability of marine resources, how technological innovation frequently masked declining catches…” (19)
In other words, EBM calls for rich multidisciplinary collaboration, reaching to the past and engaging with the present fields of political ecology, anthropology, resilience science, common pool resource models, and historical ecology (13). What can emerge, as Shackeroff et al. put it, is “an alternative way of thinking, in which human systems and the environment are inextricably linked and co-evolved”—a chance to reconcile human wellbeing and ecosystem wellbeing in a way dissolves the contradiction at EBM’s core (13). This reconciliation is a powerful invitation. As Dean Moore and Russell write, EBM invites us into, “a co-evolution of ecological ethics and ecological management practices, each of them requiring of the other a renewed commitment to the thriving of the bio-cultural whole” (11). 
This alternate way of thinking reveals a final powerful move that EBM invites us to make: a leap from discrete policies and regulations into the realm of changing social norms. Recently, key thinkers in marine policy have emphasized the necessity to examine how and why people act the way they do. Given the scope of modern threats to the ocean, policies and regulations will not be enough to ensure future sustainability. We need changes in group behavioral patterns, in incentives, and in the sense of what is “right and acceptable” (20). Myriad examples point to the effectiveness of policies that use positive incentives to change human behavior. For instance, fishermen who are granted “shares” in a fishery, rather than being penalized for overfishing, start to collaborate, self-police, and manage more sustainably (21). In order to be self-sustaining, our policies must reinforce the fact that human wellbeing and ecological wellbeing are inextricably tied. 
The imperative for this change is urgent and crucial. To address the countless threats to the sea, the Pew Ocean Commission states that, “a change in values—not only what we value, but how we value—is essential” (18). The dual components of EBM—its emphasis on the entire ecosystem, and its foregrounding of human behavior—provide a unique and necessary opportunity to pave the way for these changes. Advancements in EBM will come from continued ecological modeling, yes. But we cannot fully engage with what we think of as “systems” or “connectivity” without engaging larger ethical ideas of the human relationship with the sea. As Shackeroff, Hazen, & Crowder write, “Scientific knowledge of marine ecosystems will only be as powerful as it is inclusive of other ways of knowing the oceans” (13). By engaging with these other ways of knowing and allowing them to guide us to new frontiers of ethics and norms, the framework of marine EBM can set an example for the management of all habitats and contribute to a sustainable future for the sea. 
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