Photo: T. Jarnetun/Azote

A wave of change in the Baltic Sea

Ecological regime shifts can lead to ecosystem-based management changes.

Despite its young age (approximately 4000 years), the Baltic Sea is under considerable strain due to emissions and other pressures on the ecosystem. This in turn affects the social-ecological services it provides to the roughly 90 million people inhabiting the drainage area.

Baltic Sea ecosystems have already gone through ecological regime shifts, including a change from a cod to a sprat-dominated state in the Central Baltic Sea.

Centre researchers have previously warned that current management of ecosystems is unsustainable, and now a new governance thinking is emerging among Baltic Sea stakeholders.
 
They argue that an ecosystem-based management approach can effectively reduce the human-induced impacts on the Baltic Sea.
 
Patching together fragmented science
In a recently published paper in Marine Policy, centre researchers Henrik Österblom, Carl Folke, Per Olsson, Thorsten Blenckner and Christoph Humborg describe how such approach can be made operational.
 
The ecosystem approach is based on the importance of preserving the structure, function and resilience of an ecosystem through a management structure that matches the scale of the ecosystem.
 
One of the key challenges, however, is how to produce the ecological knowledge needed for such an approach. The ecosystem approach is also commonly featured in marine policy documents, but managers struggle with its interpretation and practical implementation.

- Unfortunately, both the marine sciences and policy makers are fragmented, with separate research groups studying either open sea or coastal ecosystems and the environmental situation in the Baltic Sea still much on a non-issue for policy makers in several countries, says Österblom.

Leadership, innovation and communication skills
Together with researchers from Sweden, Denmark and Germany, Henrik Österblom and his colleagues describe in their paper how this dispersed scientific knowledge can be integrated and developed into a new policy for the Baltic Sea.
 
The Baltic Sea is substantially shaped by human activities, some of which have to be managed in an international context, other that can be addressed at local and sub-basin levels.

Making the ecosystem approach work requires leadership, innovation and communication skills.

Space for experimenting
Interesting innovations that stimulates an adaptive capacity to deal with social-ecological dynamics are emerging and starting to spread.

For example, the Swedish national environmental quality objectives related to eutrophication* led to the establishment of the Focus on nutrients project which has created a forum for learning between farmers, scientists and managers. The method is increasingly gaining interest also in other countries.

Another example of innovative ecosystem-based management is the Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden, which went from being a water logged problem area for local resource managers during the 1970's and 80's to become a Biosphere Reserve under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program in 2005.

Common features for these and other initiatives are trust building, sense making and new partnerships across sectors where collaboration previously have been limited.

- Multilevel governance structures that provide space for experimenting and spread of social innovations locally and regionally can stimulate change. One way forward could also be to establish a number of collaborative learning platforms for stakeholders, says Österblom.

See interview with Professor Arild Underdal explaining the benefits of multilevel governance:

See whiteboard seminar with Henrik Österblom explaining the dynamics behind marin social-ecological systems and ecosystem approaches to fisheries management:

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Time:
00:06:19
Source: Österblom H, et al. Making the ecosystem approach operational — Can regime shifts in ecological-and governance systems facilitate the transition? Marine Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.05.007.
 
* excessive nutrients caused by runoff of land nutrients which acauses a dense growth of plant life and depletes oxygen supply.
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Citation

Österblom H, et al. Making the ecosystem approach operational — Can regime shifts in ecological-and governance systems facilitate the transition? Marine Policy (2010), doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.05.007

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