Updated 21 July 2010

 The importance and concept of an ecosystem approach

    Healthy ecosystems are essential for human well being, as they provide invaluable functions and services including sustaining living marine resources. The health of ecosystems is therefore not only essential to the environment, but also important to the existence and development of human society. As components of ecosystems, human beings and their interactions have profound effects on the structure and function of ecosystems which, conversely, often have profound effects on human habitats, human health and even socio-economic development, as recognized by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

    In recent years, there has been increasing international recognition of the need to manage human activities that have an effect on the marine environment and its ecosystems in an integrated, cross-sectoral manner in order to promote the sustainable development of oceans and seas and their resources. While there is no single internationally agreed-upon ecosystem approach or definition of an “ecosystem approach”, the concept is generally understood to encompass the management of human activities, based on the best understanding of the ecological interactions and processes, so as to ensure that ecosystems structure and functions are sustained for the benefit of present and future generations. The concept builds on a number of existing tools and approaches, such as integrated coastal and ocean management, with greater emphasis on ecosystem goals and objectives.

Ecosystem approaches and oceans at the General Assembly

    At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, States committed to promote the sustainable development of marine ecosystems. More specifically, States encouraged the application of the ecosystem approach by 2010, and promoted integrated, multisectoral, coastal and ocean management at the national level.

    In 2005, the General Assembly requested the seventh meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea to focus its discussions on the topic, “ecosystem approaches and oceans” (resolution 60/30). Following its discussions on the subject, on the basis of the background information contained in the report of the Secretary-General (document A/61/63) and the panel presentations, the meeting agreed that continued environmental degradation in many parts of the world and increasing competing demands required an urgent response and the setting of priorities for management interventions aimed at conserving ecosystem integrity. It was further recognized that ecosystem approaches to oceans management should be focused on managing human activities in order to maintain and, where needed, restore ecosystem health to sustain goods and environmental services, provide social and economic benefits for food security, sustain livelihoods in support of international development goals, including those contained in the United Nations Millennium Declaration (A/RES/55/2), and conserve marine biodiversity. Significantly, the meeting, while recognizing that there was no single way to implement an ecosystem approach, agreed to suggest to the General Assembly elements relating to ecosystem approaches and oceans, including the proposed elements of an ecosystem approach, means to achieve implementation of an ecosystem approach, and requirements for improved application of an ecosystem approach (the report of the meeting is contained in document A/61/156).

    Subsequently, in resolution 61/222, the General Assembly invited States to consider the agreed consensual elements. In this respect, the General Assembly recalled that States should be guided in the application of ecosystem approaches by a number of existing instruments, in particular the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its Implementing Agreements, namely the Agreement relating to the implementation of Part XI of the Convention and the United Nations Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and encouraged States to cooperate and coordinate their efforts and take all measures, in conformity with international law, to address impacts on marine ecosystems in areas within and beyond national jurisdiction, taking into account the integrity of the ecosystems concerned. These elements were reiterated in resolution 62/215.

    In relation to sustainable fisheries, the General Assembly, in resolution 62/177, encouraged States to apply by 2010 an ecosystem approach and enhance understanding of ecosystem approaches. It also called upon States, directly or through regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements (RFMO/As), to apply, in accordance with international law, an ecosystem approach to the conservation, management and exploitation of fish stocks, including straddling fish stocks, highly migratory fish stocks and discrete high seas fish stocks. It further encouraged States to apply an ecosystem approach in adopting and implementing conservation and management measures addressing, inter alia, by-catch, pollution, overfishing, and protecting habitats of specific concern, taking into account existing guidelines developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It further urged RFMO/As to incorporate ecosystem approaches.

    In order to assist States in developing and implementing ecosystem approaches to ocean-related activities, the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) of the Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations, has developed an interdisciplinary manual and training course on “Developing and Implementing an Ecosystem Approach to the Management of Ocean-related Activities”.

    In addition, the Division has published “Ecosystem Approaches and Oceans”, based on the outcome and discussions at the seventh meeting of the Consultative Process (see document A/61/156), which focused its discussions on the topic.

Ecosystem approaches and oceans in other organizations

    Other international forums and organizations have also promoted the application of an ecosystem approach, including the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility.

    At the regional and sub-regional levels, a number of mechanisms provide for the development and implementation of ecosystem approaches, in a coordinated manner, including regional seas programmes, regional fisheries management organizations and arrangements and the Large Marine Ecosystems.


Prepared by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations.

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