The ecosystem-based approach (and similar terms ecosystem-based management, or ecosystem approach) is highlighted as an important underlying principle within maritime spatial planning. It has its origins in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The ecosystem-based approach (EBA) has had a large impact on policies concerning the usage and management of natural resources and is also a starting point for the EU's Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
According to the EU MSP Directive, MSP shall follow the ecosystem-based approach, which means – among other requirements – that MSP shall be based on the best available scientific knowledge about the ecosystem and its dynamics (cf. HELCOM & OSPAR, 2003). In practice this transposition has a number of challenges. Practical implementation of the ecosystem-based approach as the scientific basis for MSP is in the early stages throughout the EU.
Application of the ecosystem-based approach presupposes a holistic perspective, continual development of knowledge of the seas and their usage, application of the precautionary principle, and flexible management. In all MSP contexts one of the main challenges, related to this topic, is the evaluation of cumulative effects that may result from the combination of different projects and activities and the potential lack of a continuous series of data and related assessment tool. This aspect is linked to the need for evaluation and monitoring of conflicts among uses, in order to detect how these conflicts evolve in the course of implementation of a MSP plan.
The definition of the ecosystem-based approach used in the HELCOM-VASAB Guideline, as adopted jointly by HELCOM-OSPAR in 2003: "the comprehensive integrated management of human activities based on the 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 marine ecosystems, thereby achieving sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and maintenance of ecosystem integrity."
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there application examples and guidance available that can help MSP authorities operationalize EBA?
General support is provided by guidance or pilot plans. At the sea-basin level, the HELCOM Guidelines for the implementation of the EBA in MSP refer to the Baltic Sea context and elaborate on the key elements to consider when applying the approach, such as deploying best available knowledge and practice, following the precautionary principle and identifying ecosystem services. The practice includes also the analysis of the relevant legal and policy context for the ecosystem-based approach, such as the Helsinki Convention, HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan and the Joint HELCOM-VASAB MSP Principles. Additionally, in the Mediterranean Sea, a Roadmap for implementing the EBA as a guiding principle for the Mediterannean Action Plan Programme of Work was developed, under the auspices of UNEP/MAP Barcelona Convention.
Individual countries have also developed guidance or frameworks for EBA in the context of their national MSP processes. In a practical guidance of the Marine Management Organisation, the CBD Principles for EBA have been modified for application in marine planning in England. Implementation of EBA in MSP in Latvia follows a three step approach: a) analysing best knowledge and practice and identification of ecosystem services, b) finding alternative developments to assess impacts on marine ecosystems and c) applying precaution and mitigation when using an impact matrix.
The Guidelines developed for the project ECODUMP are explicitly dealing with the influence of MSP and ecosystem based principles on the search and assessment of new disposal sites at the near-shore of Lithuania. The pilot plan for the Western Gulf of Gdansk developed in the project BaltSeaPlan outlines the preparation of an SEA report for maritime spatial plans in line with the EBA and with the special issue that the planned area contains Natura 2000 sites. The ADRIPLAN methodology provides techniques and methods based on the EBA for practically implementing MSP in the Adriatic-Ionian macro-region. The project BALANCE outlines the concept of blue corridors and how to work with it during practical marine spatial planning processes.
Different studies and tools are providing support when implementing ecosystem-based management. ECOMAGIS developed a complex GIS for an ecosystem-based management through integrated monitoring and assessment of the status of flora and fauna in the Romanian part of the Black Sea. Two practices have developed tools for all sea basins like the MareFrame Decision Support Framework and the ODEMM approach for EBA.
Are there practices available to find out more about the application of cumulative impact methodologies?
In all MSP contexts one of the main challenges, related with the EBA, is the evaluation of cumulative effects that may result from the combination of different projects and activities and the potential lack of a continuous series of data and related assessment tool. This aspect is related also with the need for evaluation and monitoring of conflicts among uses, in order to detect how these conflicts evolve in the course of implementation of a MSP plan. Some tools for conflicts evaluation are available, e.g. COEXIST Analysis of conflicts score, ADRIPLAN Conflicts Score Tool. The ADRIPLAN Data Portal includes spatial data and metadata to assess cumulative impacts for different categories like coastal defence, sand extraction or energy. The ADRIPLAN Cumulative Impact Tool is the main methodological tool used in the project to evaluate the potential impact of maritime activities on the environment. The Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) developed by the Bluemed Initiative of the Mediterranean Sea include a (theoretical) strategic and programmatic agenda for actions. These actions are aiming to develop inter alia tools to assess the cumulative impacts of human activities to ensure an ecologically sound exploitation of marine resources and to use decision tools to select sites for offshore installations. Finally, CONCEAL mapped cumulative noise from shipping to inform marine spatial planners and/or conservationists about the limits of good conservation status under the MSFD.
In national MSP processes, Sweden uses the 'Symphony' method to compare the environmental impact of different plan alternatives and assess cumulative impacts. The tool will be used in the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Swedish MSP to assess ecological risks.
What kind of knowledge is available at the sea basin level regarding seabed habitats, which could be used for applying the EBA in MSP?
There is one tool available for the specific region of the North-East Atlantic: from the MESHAtlantic project. It compiles the knowledge of our seas, particularly the seabed habitats, and produces harmonised habitat maps for the Atlantic Area. This includes conversion of existing paper-based maps to digital formats. Examples of mapping Natura 2000 sites are used to test mapping methods.
How is the implementation of MSP linked to Good Environmental Status (GES) and the related objectives and measures of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)?
As the environmental pillar of the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP), the MSFD provides the overall framework for implementing EBA in EU marine waters regarding the management of human activities as well as integrating the concepts of environmental protection and sustainable use. It also calls for cooperation within the marine regions. Marine strategies shall apply an EBA to ensure that the collective pressure of human activities is kept within levels compatible with the achievement of a good environmental status (GES). Furthermore, the Programmes of Measures (PoMs) and individual measures included in the marine strategies shall be based on an EBA. When MSP has been identified as one measure (within the Programme of Measures) for achieving GES according to the MSFD, it has to be based on an EBA, considering all relevant MSFD requirements.
The following table from Gilbert et al, 2015, provides an overview of the main drivers of change coming from maritime activities expected to affect MSFD descriptors: The table distinguishes between:
- Drivers potentially subject to spatial planning and the descriptors they are likely to influence (in bold) and
- Drivers beyond the remit of MSP but with pressures that might need explicit consideration when developing plans.
The PISCES Guide to implementing the ecosystem approach through the MSFD provides concrete recommendations to stakeholders and government on all steps of MSFD implementation and principles for applying the ecosystem approach. The Adaptive Marine Policy (AMP) Toolbox, developed in the context of the PERSEUS project, also supports implementation of EBA in MSFD and MSP processes by supporting policymakers with designing and implementing steps to the achieve or maintain GES.