Credit: Daniel Molloy

Understanding the importance of ecosystem-based management 


Our future and that of the planet depends on an extremely delicate balance between the need to protect the environment and the need to ensure the economic well-being of communities.  Our society is interconnected by a wide range of factors, just as are ecosystems. To achieve a sustainable future, the particular must look to the global, and vice versa. Ecosystems do not exist in isolation, and every action we humans take has repercussions. Today, the choices we make must be well-considered, and take into account the complexity of the environment, often ignored in the past, in its entirety. Before making any decisions about the future, it is vital to understand the environment and its ecosystems, and continuously assess its status, in real time.  

The Barcelona Convention and its Protocols have set a frame to guarantee that interaction between human and natural resources is happening in a harmonized and sustainable way. This frame is also based on integrative tools to ensure clear policy actions to protect natural resources while guaranteeing the economic future: ecosystem-based approach, Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and Integrated coastal zone management (ICZM).

An integrated approach for the environment 

An ecosystem-based approach goes beyond examining single issues, species, or ecosystems functioning in isolation. It takes into consideration all aspects of the environment, interlinks and interdependencies among them. In the Mediterranean area, the ecosystem approach within the Barcelona Convention system works through the Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Mediterranean Sea and Coast (IMAP), with its eleven ecological objectives and related indicators, aiming to achieve the Good Environmental Status (GES). An ecosystem-based approach is based on some general and, at the same time, explicit guiding principles. This integrated approach goes beyond national boundaries to focus on ecosystem boundaries, between sea and land, and their interconnections. 

One of the aims of the GEF Adriatic project is to mainstream the adoption of such an ecosystem approach in the national MSP across the Adriatic sub-region. Upon getting to know the ecosystem, its state and the pressures it is exposed to, the MSP is what makes it possible to improve the state of a marine environment, where pressures exceed the sustainable limits, or maintain the status quo, where a balance between human and natural processes already exists. The project is helping planners to manage the development of a sustainable blue economy through a series of initiatives that can be summarised in the following key actions: monitoring and spatially presenting data on the marine and coastal environment, assessing and assigning values to the state and level of pressures to the environment, identifying the vulnerable areas where utilisation and exploitation of resources should be avoided but also areas that are favourable for use; proposing and implementing measures ensuring development of the blue economy while preserving fragile marine areas. 

Step by step, learning about our sea

Throughout the project, the methodology for integrating an ecosystem approach into MSP was developed and tested in Montenegro, where researchers organised numerous data collection and mapping initiatives on the marine ecosystems. Data collected are based on IMAP Common Indicators, including both those predominantly related to the state of the marine environment (biodiversity and landscape features, such as habitat distributional range, population abundance of selected species and the like) and those related to existing pressures (e.g. eutrophication, contamination, physical disturbance of the coastline). It was therefore possible to map the distribution of habitats in the marine area of Montenegro and, for the first time, distribution of selected commercial fish species. Subsequently, investigations went deeper, leading to the mapping of pollution dispersion, including the concentration of litter distributed in the sea. 

After collecting this information, it was possible to achieve an attribution of values to the current state and pressures on the marine areas. By using different criteria, the value index is applied to different components of the biodiversity, distribution of selected commercial fish species and landscape/seascape, but also applied is a pressure index in the case of contaminants, eutrophication and marine litter. It was thus possible to assess the cumulative effects on biodiversity, and identify those areas where the pressure on the environment is greatest and most severe. The evaluation is based on an integrative assessment of the current state of the marine environment and the current intensity of pressures, taking into consideration exposure and sensitivity of the marine environment to the pressures coming from existing human activities. Finally, results of this assessment point to the areas where proper management of coastal and maritime activities is needed. 



As a result of this assessment, it’s become possible to see where improved management of coastal and maritime activities is really needed. The project identified a number of specific actions to conserve and improve existing ecosystems. Thanks to a step-by-step approach, it has been possible to obtain clear and organised information, much previously unknown, which will form the basis of future policy decisions. 

Marina Marković, PAP/RAC Programme officer, sums up the real implications of such an extensive and unprecedented project as the one carried out in Montenegro, «The ecosystem approach is rightly the dominant paradigm, but real-world MSP has to deal with the real political and institutional competencies, complex participation issues, sectoral trade-offs and blue growth priorities. With the proposed approach, tested in Montenegro, we are providing a visual tool, based on scientific data that provides objectively verifiable bases for decision making processes based also on environmental priorities».


Click here to see our infographic about ecosystem-based management and Marine Spatial Planning.