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Ecosystem Approach (also used interchangeably with Ecosystem-Based Management) goes beyond examining single species, habitats, ecosystems or related functions in isolation. It can be used as an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to planning and management that recognises the richness and complexity of ecological systems and the continuous interactions among their components.

Basing decision-making on ecological limits and spatial boundaries of ecosystems, as well as on the integration of social, ecological and governance principles helps to preserve healthy and productive ecosystems and related services, and to achieve the sustainable use of natural resources.

In the Mediterranean, the Ecosystem Approach is the guiding principle to all policy development and implementation undertaken under the auspices of the UNEP/MAP Barcelona Convention system, with the ultimate objective of achieving the Good Environmental Status (GES) of the Mediterranean Sea and Coast. It operates through the Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Mediterranean Sea and Coast (IMAP), which shares many common elements with the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The ecosystem approach is a key principle of the ICZM Protocol  of the Barcelona Convention to ensure that coastal planning and management allows the sustainable development of the coastal zone. It applies to all related planning processes of land and sea based marine activities, therefore underpinning the overall MSP implementation. Though not covering all Mediterranean countries, the EU MSP Directive also demonstrates the relevance of the ecosystem approach to “contribute to promoting the sustainable development and growth of the maritime and coastal economies and the sustainable use of marine and coastal resources”. Therefore, MSP is expected to contribute to the goals of IMAP and of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

More visible action and planning is called for in the marine space. By using the MSP process tools, guidance, case studies and examples of good practices you can include the ecosystem approach within plans to turn a well thought out concept into a successfully implemented programme.

The twelve guiding “Malawi principles” give us the key elements of the ecosystem approach from the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) which are mainly linked to the key MSP principles included in the EU MSP directive and in the Conceptual Framework for MSP in the Mediterranean.

The ecosystem approach requires that ecosystems are managed within their limits using an appropriate scale of analysis, considering working beyond administrative boundaries and taking a long-term approach to planning and management. Matching MSP and ecosystem boundaries, scales and timeframe represent one of the major challenges we want to work with you to overcome.

An appropriate balance between conservation goals and sustainable development goals is needed according to the ecosystem approach. Setting a clear vision and goals for the conservation of marine ecosystems, habitats and biodiversity is essential. Using the best available scientific knowledge, as well as reliable sources of ecological and environmental data and information is key to analysing the conditions of the marine environment and the impacts generated by the present and planned human activities. Applying the ecosystem approach usually requires transboundary data exchange, tools sharing, development of a common vision and related objectives. Reaching an agreement on common strategic directions is crucial to ensure the ecosystem approach is properly applied across marine borders.

Placing Along the MSP Road Map

The ecosystem approach shall be considered as a guiding approach for the entire MSP process and at all the stages of the MSP policy cycle:

Prepare: Starting the Process and Getting Organised

The ecosystem approach should be applied from the beginning of the MSP process, e.g. when forming an interdisciplinary group of experts that include marine scientists, in order to support science-based decisions across the entire planning process. As is agreeing early on your definition of a long-term perspective for marine planning, adopting a wide spatial scale of analysis extending beyond administrative boundaries and considering interactions with land based human activities are also relevant from the beginning of the process.

Agree the Destination: Assessing the Context and Defining a Vision

Define a clear vision that contributes to delivering international and national goals and objectives for the protection of marine and coastal ecosystems and biodiversity. Defining conservation goals alongside economic development goals will set a course for achieving or maintaining the good environmental status (GES).

Map the Present / Future: Analysing Existing and Future Conditions

The pressures and (cumulative) impacts of human activities on the marine resources need to be assessed and spatially represented. Conflicts and synergies between different uses of the marine space and Marine Protected Areas and other Area-based Effective Conservation Measures must be evaluated. Both current conditions and future scenarios should be included in these analyses. A quantitative approach is preferred, but it might be challenging due to frequently encountered barriers related to data availability and technical capacity.

Design the Plan: Elaborating the MSP

Natural boundaries (for example the extension of seagrass meadows) need to be taken into account when identifying planning units and planning for future uses and related management measures. The possible impacts of newly planned activities that extend beyond the planning area (e.g. in the marine space of other countries) must be properly evaluated and minimised. The objectives and measures of economic development must not prevail over the objectives and measures for biodiversity conservation.

Get Results: Monitoring and Evaluating the Plan

Indicators are used to monitor the effects of planned maritime activities (and related measures) on the marine environment and their effectiveness in sustainably developing marine and coastal areas. Synergies with monitoring programs already in place to assess the environmental state of coastal marine waters (indicator systems set within IMAP at Mediterranean level and the MSFD and the WFD at European level) should be maximised. The plan needs to be regularly assessed and revised, also to include any change in policies or strategies setting more ambitious international conservation objectives.

Use our Ecosystem Approach and MSP Planning Tool to help you identify and apply major actions to deliver the ecosystem approach within MSP.

The Excel version of the tool provides a short description of actions, some examples of their application (when available) and space (four last rows) for the self-checking of implemented actions (level of implementation, description of actions implemented, evaluation of implementation and major barriers).

Other Tools and Practices

1. Tools4MSP provides a suite of open-source tools to support the implementation of MSP; the cumulative effect assessment (CEA) tool in particular can be used for cumulative impact assessment of maritime activities on the marine environment.

2. Discover the application of the ecosystem approach, based on IMAP, in Montenegro, as part of the GEF Adriatic project.

3. The pilot project in the Western Mediterranean Sea basin (MSP Global initiative) developed two technical reports on current conditions and compatibility of maritime uses and future conditions and scenarios for MSP, using an ecosystem approach.

4. Updated information on the implementation of MSP across the EU, including implementation of ecosystem approach, is available at EU MSP Platform.

Go to the Ecosystem Approach and MSP Planning Tool