For the last several years ecologists have been advocating a change in the way we protect species and conserve natural resources. Historically campaigns were designed to target a single species or group of related animals. Think of the highly publicized programs to protect right whales, piping plovers, grizzly bears, and spotted owls. While these campaigns have met with a great deal of public support, sometimes the success rate has not lived up to expectations. Even the Endangered Species Act, in spite of its numerous successes, has been hampered by this approach.
A more scientific way of conserving species is referred to as ecosystem-based management. Rather than focusing on one or two species, this approach addresses all of the environmental and cultural factors that interact in affecting threatened plants and animals. Ecosystem-based management is particularly useful when dealing with a large natural resource such as a national park or a marine sanctuary.
A management scheme that looks at the entire ecosystem factors in links between the natural features and human influences. Economic and cultural pressures affect many species, especially those used in an industry. In the marine environment several economically significant areas interact with each other, including interests in fisheries, energy development, tourism, and transportation. To balance all of these areas that are sometimes in conflict can be a formidable task.
For example, whenever population data suggests that a species might be threatened or endangered, measures are often taken to reverse this decline. But it is inevitable that these steps will impact some other use of the resource. A change in international shipping lanes was initiated to reduce collisions with right whales. Sections of beaches are fenced off to prevent the disturbance of piping plover and tern nesting sites. Shellfishing is closed in areas subjected to red tide. And sections of the marine environment may be temporarily closed to ground fishing to allow the recovery of a species.
In each case human activities can continue, but may need restrictions and regulations to protect the threatened resource. This is a dynamic situation that requires constant review and monitoring. These restrictions can be lifted once the danger has passed. In all cases, such decisions should be based on the best scientific data available.
Hence the need for comprehensive, long-term regional plans that take into account the entire ecosystem and not just one small piece. The benefits of such planning allow economic development to proceed while simultaneously protecting environmental resources.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.