Can the Ecosystem Approach (EA) Work in Arctic Science and Governance?

By Nadia French

The Ecosystem Approach (EA) has existed for more than 30 years and has been perceived as the ultimate tool for addressing ecological problems throughout the globe. It was, thus, not surprising that the Arctic Council Ministers adopted it in 2004 as an overarching principle for the work in the Arctic. What is surprising is how few results and methods for actually implementing it in the circumpolar North exist to date, especially on land. So, what hinders its implementability? In this article, we will try and explore whether problems lie in the name, science-policy interface, or perhaps polar science and the Arctic nature itself.

Defying Definition

The first issue in trying to define the Ecosystem Approach is the lack of clarity of its components, let alone figuring out whether and how it is more than a sum of its parts. Since the term “ecosystem” was conceived in 1935, it has accrued over 40 definitions (Hatcher and Bradbury, 2006). Essentially, all of them have revolved around the interactions between the living and non-living components. From the scalar point of view, an ecosystem can be anything from the whole Earth to a rockpool, so its boundaries are arbitrary. As an approach, it aimed to shift focus from addressing a particular problem to a wider interplay of factors incorporating humans into the ecological system, not only as an element, but also as a manager and as a steward. Thus, humans can be seen as both – an independent and a dependent variable of the natural system. At the same time, the scale of such a combined human and nature ecosystem had to accommodate the scale of human activities for their impact to be meaningful to the decision-makers. And as in natural ecosystems, there was a need to define the transaction units, such as food and energy, which became known as ecosystem services. The transformation of an initial ecological definition of an ecosystem to fit the emergent environmental values has made it harder to define an ‘ecosystem’ both structurally and functionally. De Lucia proposed that in order to escape the vagueness, we should refer to the Ecosystem Approach as a narrative (2014). Keeping this in mind, we will look at some official definitions. The Convention of Biological Diversity defined the EA as a strategy for managing natural resources that equally promotes conservation and sustainable use (Convention of Biological Diversity, 2000). CBD acknowledged the dynamic nature as well as variable scientific knowledge as potential problems. This wording is important because CBD’s definition was subsequently used as a reference by others (e.g. UN, EU, IUCN, OSPAR, DEFRA, etc.).

The EA in the Arctic Council (AC) was defined as an integrated ecosystem-based management approach to development activities, “coordinated in a way that minimizes their impact on the environment and integrates thinking across environmental, socioeconomic, political and sectoral realms,” in order to reduce environmental damage, preserve biodiversity, and promote prosperity of local communities. After four working groups within the AC formed the Ecosystem Approach Expert Group (EA-EG) in 2011, the understanding of the approach came down to a sequence of elements for spatially and geographically identifying an ecosystem, describing its processes and characteristics, setting holistic ecological objectives, and assessing its present status – all ahead of valuing its goods and services, and ultimately using this information to manage human activities therein. The sequence suggests that the knowledge about ecosystems is not a given, but to be generated, and is sequential to further steps in achieving ‘sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services’ (Arctic Council, 2017).

While CBD’s definition stresses the need to manage natural resources, the AC looks at managing human activities. But both definitions subsume competing values: that of acknowledging the intrinsic value of nature and preserving its integrity and of using ecological knowledge as a market tool – conservation and sustainability; but which one is more important? Can the EA be anthropocentric and ecocentric at the same time? Some researchers show that a definition depends greatly on who defines EA, whether it’s an ecologist, government agency, natural resource user or other, and a perspective would shift accordingly on the scale from ecosystem services and sustainability to environmental integrity and health (Brooks et al., 2002). It is evident that for scientists, the ultimate goal is to improve understanding. For managers, however, this approach is part of a different agenda, for instance, of sustaining the delivery of goods and services to humans. Answering the question of what Ecosystem Approach should do, whether it is perceived as a method or an ideology of a sort, can help detangle this terminological ambiguity. CBD, UNEP, IUCN, OSPAR and AC, all define it in general terms as a strategy, while a working group within the Arctic Council referred to it in operational terms as a “network of networks approach” that “integrates information across ecosystems, species, and their interactions, and lends itself to monitoring many aspects of an ecosystem within the Arctic region” (CAFF, 2013).

From the onset, Ecosystem Approach was incepted as a zoning and management tool for the Arctic seas. And while “terrestrial” working groups joined PAME, the divide between land and sea persisted. While the Arctic marine environment is considered more complex, the terrestrial ecosystems that take almost 50% of the entire Arctic territory received substantially less attention within the Arctic Council domain. Over the years, the AC attempted to “explore the development of terrestrial assessment units (landscape equivalents to LMEs)” (Arctic Council, 2013 and then Arctic Council, 2017) which to date remain undefined. Fairbanks Conference in 2016 did have terrestrial cases brought up, but out of the plethora of presentations on the marine environments and species, only a couple were devoted to terrestrial issues (PAME, 2016).

Further in this article, we will look at Arctic terrestrial ecosystems only, as allegedly more simple in terms of research and governance compared to the Arctic marine environment (e.g. Smiths et al., 2013, p. 622), and hence indicative of the Ecosystem Approach operability in the Arctic as a whole.

Ecosystem Approach in Governance

Canada (e.g. McAfee and Malouin, 2008), the United States (e.g. Marine Mammals Management office, NOAA), Norway (Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, 2009) and the EU (e.g. EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, EU Water Framework Directive), in one form or another, claimed allegiance to the EA for environmental governance. One country with four LMEs and largest Arctic and sub-Arctic land territory is yet to come on board – and that is Russia. At the moment, Russian environmental laws and policies do not operate in terms of Ecosystem Approach. But there has been a shift: new policies such as the State Programme on Environmental Protection 2012-2020 (Pravitelstvo RF, 2014a) and Strategy on Environmental Security through to 2025 (Prezident RF, 2017) show a shift towards ecologically informed governance; they incorporate values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into economic indicators and stress a role of citizens in protection measures. Unlike Russia’s existing environmental laws, the Strategy on Environmental Security specifically states the protection of marine and terrestrial ecosystems rather than ‘natural objects’ or particular species. Still, this changing vocabulary does not go as far as EA in Russia and the Russian Arctic.

The Russian Strategy on the Conservation of Rare and Endangered Animal, Plant and Fungi Species up to 2030 (Pravitelstvo RF, 2014b) is the only document that set a goal of developing and implementing the “Ecosystem Approach” in order to achieve sustainable use of natural resources throughout the economic sectors as a protective measure. But no specifics or timeframes were given, and at this stage it relies on species, organism and population conservation.

Obviously, the presence of a certain rhetoric as its absence does not automatically imply efficiency or operability of the Ecosystem Approach; it is the development of the entire mechanism – from research commissioning to data collection and monitoring to developing managerial apparatus capable of translating scientific analysis into management decisions. The obstacles are hidden within the governance system (multiple stakeholders, legislative inertia, research funding priorities, etc.), science (data deficiency, inadequate analysis methods, lack of interdisciplinarity, high costs of Arctic research, difficulty in achieving consensus, etc.), and the Arctic nature itself (heterogeneous biomes, seasonal variation, dynamic interspecies interactions, external and internal interannual trends, intrinsic stochasticity of real ecosystems, etc.).

The sparsely populated Arctic environment makes a less pressing case for the evaluation and management of ecosystem services than more competitive regions of mid-latitudes. In most assessments, it was the cultural and traditional role of Arctic ecosystems that was stressed (e.g. Hausner, 2013) rather than the Arctic as a key source of depletable natural resources and a carbon sink of the planet, and as such, it can hardly be managed in isolation, as a closed system.

Nine years after adoption of the EA concept by the AC, the Fairbanks Conference stated that no management of human activities existed on the ecosystem scale across the Arctic; there were no common ecological objectives; there was no general understanding of the Integrated Ecosystem Assessment, and that valuations of ecosystem services and goods were “far from complete” (Arctic Council, 2017).

Ecosystem Approach in Science

While Ecosystem Approach is imbedded in the scientific knowledge about the ecosystem, it is only fair to inquire whether science can deliver on the promises of providing such data on the scale that would be meaningful for ecosystem governance. While the Arctic Council focuses on the marine ecosystems, ecosystems on land are not less threatened, better understood or managed.

The Arctic, unlike for instance, the Amazon rainforest, has fewer components and a simpler structure, which led scientists to believe that it could provide an easier case for using the Ecosystem Approach. Ecosystems are defined based on the trophic linkages and physical characteristics within a given place. The knowledge of both properties tends to be limited due to a lack of historical or current data about the Arctic, unevenly distributed scientific effort as well as changing environmental conditions that add to the complexity of any research (e.g. Post et al., 2009; Legagneux et al., 2012). And to date, there have been few projects which can be called ecosystem-based within the Arctic, comprehensively observing Arctic biotic-abiotic interactions over a prolonged period of time. One such research took place in Zackenberg, Northeast Greenland, over the period of 20 years (Schmidt et al. 2017). This project proved that high Arctic interaction webs are more complex than previously thought despite apparent simplicity, and that the Arctic terrestrial biome is dominated by the invertebrate species (and not, as we are often led to believe, by the polar bear). It is, nevertheless, not the norm in the Arctic science. Such dedication to the wide range of species within a particular locale and their interactions among themselves and with the environment is an exemption. What is more, the results of one field study cannot be applied to another site as the structure of such interactions is highly variable in space and time (e.g. Schmidt et al., 2017; Rasmussen et al. 2013).

AC CBPM attempted to bring together an international team of scientists from the Arctic states to try and implement the Ecosystem Approach in terrestrial research across the circumpolar North; the result of their collaboration was a supplement to the Polar Research issue devoted to the Arctic fox (Volume 36, 2017 – Issue sup1: Arctic Fox Biology and Management). That goes to show that ecosystem research, as it stands, hinges on the level of knowledge about each individual component across the latitudes as well as through time. And whether understanding one species’ diet or responses to climate change will help us get an insight into the functioning of a larger ecosystem, or will remain a piece of the incomplete puzzle, is a next-level question.

In addition to relying on fragmentary knowledge in shaping our understanding of Arctic ecosystems, there are several elements of the Arctic environmental network that are more controversial and sparsely studied in conjunction with trophic networks and physical processes. They are people – native and immigrants, human and industrial environment, its products and to a lesser extent the so-called ‘subsidised’ predators – animals that benefit from resources and infrastructure provided by human activities.

While interaction webs and changing phenology and abiotic conditions present a challenge for research (not of all species, even among vertebrates), and questions have received equal amount of attention from scientists – for instance, little data is available on the current status of the population of Eurasian tundra wolf, little is known about underground dwellers like protozoa, how the same ecosystem networks function during winter, how an ecosystem links across the ecosystem boundaries, etc.

Ultimately, the Ecosystem Approach in science has been defined by what problem is addressed (e.g. pollution, biodiversity, sustainable resource use, etc.) and what is used as a proxy (individual species, vegetation, physical properties, etc.) to study it. It seldom poses a goal of holistically advancing scientific understanding about the ecosystem as a whole, especially as defined by the AC or CBD.


So what are the alternatives? Keystone species, species indicators (e.g. in Russia) and focal ecosystem components (e.g. CBMP) have all been introduced as proxies through which the ecosystem is to be defined and studied. The holistic value of the ecosystem approach, while undoubtedly superior, seems to be overshadowed by practical issues of an often expensive, time-consuming and labour-intensive field work. Additionally, analytical and modelling tools available today may not be able to deal with a number of variables at the true ecosystem scale.

How do you combine data and eliminate the unknowns in the interactions between the living organisms, between biota and the changing environment, between the physical processes and between all of the above and human society which also exists in a certain political and economic time and place? The Arctic Council proposed adaptive management and adjustable ecological objectives, but will the knowledge and scientific consensus ever keep up with the increasing pressures of Arctic development and changing environmental conditions? Moreover, will it keep up with society’s competing identities in the Arctic – that of inhabitant, user, manager and steward?

It is tempting and perhaps useful to have an overarching structuring model to guide our actions, but in order to implement the Ecosystem Approach (humans and all), certain fundamental changes need to be made in scientific work as well as the science-governance interface, such as:
   – overhaul of environmental research framework (whether through a more complex study design, an addition to a higher level interpretation or an interdisciplinary compilation)
   – potential changes in funding system, collaboration structure, legal framework, etc.
And even so, by the time we manage to collect baseline data sufficient to set ecological objectives and manage human activities, we might be already far past the sustainability threshold with little left to preserve.

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Nadia French serves as Associate – Russian Arctic at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She started her PhD at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, in 2015, specialising in the Russian Arctic region. Prior to this, she studied for an MSc in Environmental Science, Technology and Society at the University of Glasgow and worked in the power generation industry in Russia. Her research focuses on environment-society interactions on Yamal peninsula of the Russian Arctic, with interests spanning over the Russian Arctic zone, polar environmental governance, Arctic regionalism, society-environment interactions, climate change and Arctic climate services, Russian Arctic industrialisation, and the use of GIS for multidisciplinary research in the High North.

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