Guest Blog: Ecosystem Based Management

Argyll Coast and Islands Hope Spot
Image: The Argyll Coast and Islands Hope Spot

In this guest blog for CCN, Peter Hume explains the idea behind Ecosystem Based Management (EBM) and presents the results of research into stakeholder perceptions of EBM within the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area (MPA).

As a mature student, it really is a privilege to be able to study something I care deeply about.   Choosing to retrain and focus on marine conservation has, so far, been a wonderful decision.  I have recently finished my two-year (part-time) masters at Edinburgh University, in Marine Systems and Policies (although I normally call it Marine Conservation as that’s what all my coursework focused on). 

 Choosing a dissertation topic was not easy; in the marine environment there is so much to care about, so many battles to be fought, and discoveries to be made.  I knew I wanted to focus on Scotland, to build my network, and ideally, to be able to contribute in a tangible way towards improving the health of our seas. 

An idea I had been increasingly aware of is Ecosystem Based Management (EBM).  In a nutshell, this involves managing an ecosystem holistically, a move away from some traditional practices such as protecting one key commercial or charismatic species, and the absolutism of “conservationists vs. industrialists”: EBM demands that humans are seen as an integral part of the ecosystem, so that their effects on the environment, or their “externalities”, are forced to become sustainable.

In the past the debate has too often been polarised by conservationists who believe humans should have zero impact, and industrialists who are forced to take the opposing side, where demanding the right to have any impact becomes incendiary.  An EBM philosophy recognises that humans are part of nature and that we need to work with it, rather than pretend we are separate, or to ignore it altogether.

Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA

So, after considering some kind of a maerl survey (my favourite marine habitat!), I decided I could achieve more through social science and settled on a survey of stakeholders to assess their attitudes towards Ecosystem Based Management.  I hoped that the survey results would shed light on the barriers to further implementation of EBM:  To what extent is it currently implemented; what are the necessary precursors to greater community involvement (a key pillar of EBM), and does the community care about holistic management?

I chose to use the Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura MPA as a case study because of the large number of commercial, academic and leisure-orientated stakeholders there, and the fact that it is specifically designated to protect just one species (common skate), which means it is not currently managed under an EBM philosophy.

 I had planned to do face-to-face interviews, but lockdown forced me to change to an online survey.  I was very fortunate to have guidance from Kerri and Rebecca from Fauna and Flora International, and they also helped spread word about the survey via the CCN Facebook page and newsletter.  A good number of non-commercial stakeholders responded, but fewer commercial operators took part.  I suppose by the nature of their jobs commercial operators tend to have less time at a desk, while many of the non-commercial respondents were academics, with a particular interest in this area. 

However, I perhaps failed to hide my bias against dredging and aquaculture inside MPAs, which to be honest is something I make no bones about.  Indeed, one of my key findings was that there is practically no chance of a stakeholder council taking on responsibility for managing the MPA while dredging and extensive aquaculture are still allowed inside it – a situation which I believe makes a mockery of the MPA designation, and perpetuates the paper park phenomenon. 

Meaningful Protection

There may be a need for dredging and aquaculture to sustain rural communities, but what is the point of calling somewhere an MPA if these activities take place inside it?  What protection does the MPA offer, that the area outwith it does not? 

I would much rather see smaller areas designated as MPAs if it actually meant they were properly protected.  At least this would give us a solid foundation from which to build:  the current situation gives us vacuous foundations that will ultimately have to be rebuilt if any meaningful protection is to be given to our seas. 

While I was of this opinion prior to the survey, it was supported by a number of comments by commercial and no-commercial respondents, such as “ban dredging in closed zones”, “more abundant life before dredging”, “increase in aquaculture and dredging have reduced biodiversity”, and “start actually enforcing closed zones with penalties that matter”.

There was consistently a wide range of opinions about how healthy the MPA is.  Even among academic stakeholders there were big differences in opinion about what Ecosystem Based Management is and to what extent it is currently implemented.  There was a clear trend of those who spend time under the sea thinking the marine environment is less healthy than those who do not, which is evidence that the “out of sight, out of mind” principle still applies even among commercial stakeholders. 

Across both stakeholder groups there was a recurring concern about the lack of MPA policing, a mistrust of Marine Scotland, and the inability of opposing stakeholder groups (in particular dredgers and less destructive stakeholders) to reach consensus in a regional advisory committee. 

Key recommendations made include the need to instigate a general public and stakeholder awareness campaign in order to increase knowledge about the state of our marine ecosystems, in particular the seabed; the need to ban dredging and aquaculture inside MPAs to give them validity and as a pre-requisite for effective stakeholder control; and the need to manage MPAs with a more holistic remit than the protection of one or two species.

I enjoyed the process of conducting the survey, though it has made me aware how politically charged things are.  Personally, I cannot reconcile the need for jobs against the damage done by certain activities.  Our government needs to find a solution to this sooner rather than later.  They could begin with some community consultation.

Thanks to the author, Peter Hume, MSc., and to those within and outwith CCN who contributed to this research.

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