Ecosystems are complex, dynamic and integrated natural systems that produce goods and services to society and have substantial intrinsic value. An ecosystem approach accounts for the interrelationships among air, water, land, and all living things, including humans, and involves all user groups in comprehensive management. Ecosystem approaches are frequently designed for a particular place and a particular set of stakeholders. As such, they are frequently referred to as locally-designed ecosystem approaches.

We now have over 40 years of experience in applying an ecosystem approach in both science and management. It is time to take stock of where this approach originated, where we are now in terms of its application, and what is its future direction. We will be convening a two-day conference titled “The Ecosystem Approach in the 21st Century: Guiding Science and Management” in the fall of 2022 at the University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario.

Developing an ecosystem approach and management framework

The story of Great Lakes protection and management can be traced as far back as the signing of the Boundary Waters Treaty in 1909, between the United States and Great Britain (signed on behalf of Canada), concerning the principles and mechanisms of preventing and resolving disputes about water quality and quantity across the border (United States and Great Britain, 1909). The Boundary Waters Treaty resulted in the formation of an independent advisor, namely the International Joint Commission, to prevent any disputes between the two countries. More recently, a binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed in 1972 (GLWQA, 2012) between the United States and Canada (with revisions in 1978, 1987 and 2012) committing to the restoration, protection and use of an ecosystem approach (Vallentyne and Beeton, 1988; Vallentyne and Munawar, 1993). The GLWQA set water quality objectives to prevent the further pollution of boundary waters of the Great Lakes. The primary focus of the 1972 GLWQA was controlling cultural eutrophication by reducing phosphorus inputs from point and nonpoint sources. A major contribution behind the GLWQA was the excellent empirical evidence by Vollenweider et al. (1974) which indicated that cultural eutrophication was caused by excessive phosphorus loadings. The wide applicability of Vollenweider’s empirical relationships resulted in regulations for sewage treatment plants, reduction of phosphates in detergents in the Great Lakes region and establishment of total phosphorus loading reduction targets. Similar abatement actions were also implemented in European lakes (Willén, 2001). An ecosystem approach has also been championed through the Great Lakes Fishery Commission as management that incorporates the abiotic (e.g. water temperature), biotic (e.g. foodwebs), and social (e.g. economy) components for integrative decision making, aiming to improve natural resources health and sustainability (Guthrie et al., 2019; Francis et al., 2007).

Operationalizing an ecosystem approach in Great Lakes Areas of Concern

A major step in operationalizing an ecosystem approach came through Canada-United States cooperation under the GLWQA in the development of remedial action plans (RAPs) to restore beneficial use impairments in Areas of Concern-AOCs (IJC, 1985; 1987; Hartig and Thomas, 1988; Hartig and Vallentyne, 1989; Hartig and Zarull, 1992; Minns et al., 2011). Since 1973, the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, the principal advisor to the IJC on matters pertaining to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, has periodically assessed the state of the Great Lakes. As part of these assessments, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board identified specific harbours, embayments, river mouths and connecting channels, where one of more jurisdictional standards or general or specific water quality objectives of the Agreement were not being met (IJC 1985). These objectives and standards were being exceeded, in spite of implementation of pollution control programs. Initially termed “problem areas”, they were later called Areas of Concern (AOCs).

The list of AOCs changed over time due to implementation of remedial and preventive programs and improvements in water quality, and the emergence of new problems and/or reinterpretation of the significance of earlier reports. The major problems identified have also changes in response to the evolution of scientific understanding of water quality problems (i.e. from recognition of bacterial pollution to eutrophication to toxic substances contamination to loss of habitat and biodiversity), improved ability to detect and measure problems, and progress in implementing remedial and preventive actions (Hartig and Thomas 1988).

Despite progress in abating bacterial and phosphorus pollution in many AOCs, in 1985 the Great Lakes Water Quality Board reported that progress had been stalled in 42 AOCs, where general or specific objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement were not being met and such failure had caused or had likely caused impairment of beneficial use or of the area’s ability to support aquatic life. A 43rd AOC was identified in in 1991 (i.e. Presque Isle Bay, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA). Impairment of beneficial use means a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem sufficient to cause any of 14 beneficial use impairments.

As a result of the recommendation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, the eight Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario, with support from the federal governments of the U.S. and Canada, committed to developing and implementing a remedial action plan (RAP) in 1985 to restore all beneficial uses in each Area of Concern within their political boundaries (IJC, 1985). This commitment to developing and implementing RAPs to restore all impaired beneficial uses in Areas of Concern was then codified in the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Canada and the U.S., 1987).

The primary beneficial use impairments identified in 1987 were restrictions of fish and wildlife consumption, degradation of fish and wildlife populations, fish tumors or other deformities, degradation of benthos, restrictions on dredging activities, eutrophication or undesirable algae, degradation of phytoplankton or zooplankton populations, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. It should be noted that this was a preliminary assessment of use impairments in 1987 based on available data and information. As more comprehensive data were collected, knowledge gaps filled, and remedial and preventive actions implemented, the status of these use impairments changed over time. However, this preliminary assessment provides useful historical context for the major problems identified at the onset of RAPs.

Each RAP was to identify use impairments and causes, remedial and preventive actions needed to restore use impairments, agencies or organizations responsible for implementing the actions, and the timeframe for implementation to increase accountability. Further, RAPs were to adopt an ecosystem approach (Canada and the U.S. 1987; Hartig and Vallentyne, 1989). At that time, the development of RAPs represented a challenging departure from historical pollution control efforts, where separate programs like regulation of municipal and industrial discharge, urban runoff, agricultural runoff, and others were implemented without consideration of overlapping responsibilities or consequences (Hartig and Vallentyne, 1989; Hartig and Zarull, 1992). The new RAP process, at that time, called upon a pool of talent far beyond those individuals traditionally associated with water pollution control. It included local communities and all stakeholders in each AOC.

Since the commitment to RAPs in 1985, it is fair to say that there were 43 locally designed ecosystem approaches to use restoration in AOCs. As of 2019, seven AOCs have been delisted, two have been designated as Areas of Concern in Recovery, and and 79 of 137 known use impairments in Canadian AOCs and 90 of 255 known use impairments in U.S. AOCs were eliminated (Hartig et al., 2020). Despite substantial restoration progress, there are many ongoing challenges (Hartig et al., 2018; Munawar, 2018). Indeed, AOCs have been a crucible for testing use of locally-designed ecosystem approaches to restore impaired beneficial uses and testing and applying many ecosystem-based scientific tools and techniques.

The global role of Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society in promoting ecosystem approach

Since its inception, the Society has partnered with many international institutions to organize numerous conferences, symposia, workshops and events. It has worked with many partners from across the world on diverse environmental issues, problems and anthropogenic stresses, sharing the common goal of aquatic conservation by applying ecosystem-based science and strategies. These include biennial AEHMS conferences. After more than 20 years of hard work, the accomplishments of the Society were celebrated at the 10th biennial AEHMS conference, held in Siena, Italy, 2011. Other conferences included the recent AEHMS 12 conference in Pantnagar, India as well as symposia on special topics such as “State of Lake” ecosystems, Great Lakes of the World (GLOW) in Kenya, Health of the Arabian Gulf (GULF), UAE and marine and freshwater Invasive species (MFIS) in Argentina.

The AEHMS has a long history of peer-reviewed publications for the benefit of international readers. The Society also organizes publications on topics/ecosystems that need more attention. Our two publications avenues - the AEHM with its special issues (>50) and the Ecovision World Monograph Series (21 peer reviewed books) - have been quite successful (see www.aehms.org) with worldwide distribution. Upcoming books in press focus on the Great Lakes Areas of Concern and ecology of Bay of Quinte.

Examples of special topics covered in AEHMS publications are presented below:

Ecovision books

  • “State of the Lake” monographs on each of the 5 Laurentian Great Lakes

Selected special issues

  • African and Russian Great Lakes

  • Freshwater fishes of South America

  • Ecology, health and management of Arabian Gulf

  • Marine environmental change in South China Sea

  • Ecosystem health of majestic river Ganges

  • Ecology of the mighty Ganges: Health, fisheries and management

  • Ecosystem health and recovery of the Bay of Quinte.

  • State of Hamilton Harbour: Health, remediation and restoration. I and II

  • Ecosystem recovery in the Toronto and region area of concern

  • Marine Invasive Species: Management of ballast water and other vectors

  • History of Great Lakes fishes, fisheries and governance: Dr. Henry Regier’s legacy

  • Restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern: 32 years of remediation and restoration

  • Managing the health of the Gulf ecosystem: Dealing with climate change, invasive species and coastal alterations Parts I and II

  • State of Lake Vanern ecosystem

  • State of marine and freshwater invasive species: Chinese and global perspective

  • Coastal zone management and adaptation under climate change: Integrating ecology and engineering

Invitation: The Ecosystem Approach in the 21st Century: Guiding science and management

The Great Lakes now have over four decades of experience in the use of an ecosystem approach and ecosystem-based science and management. It is time to assess and evaluate the past, present and future of an ecosystem approach and its application for remediation and restoration. Consequently a major conference titled “The Ecosystem Approach in the 21st Century: Guiding Science and Management” will be convened at the University of Windsor in fall of 2022.

The goal of the conference is to bring experts together to review the efficacy of scientific tools and management practices for the application of an ecosystem approach, and to identify lessons learned during the past four decades and remaining challenges associated with making the ecosystem approach fully relevant and operational in the water science, policy, and management fields in the 21st Century. The primary focus of this conference will be on the North American Great Lakes, with other international examples. Such an endeavor is particularly timely as we try to manage aquatic resources for sustainability in the 21st century in the midst of uncertainty, complexity, and political, economic, and ecological turmoil, including the COVID pandemic.

A proposed structure of this two-day conference is presented below:

Day 1

Session A – Origin of Ecosystem Approach and Challenges in Implementing It

  • Why do we need a conference on the Ecosystem Approach?

  • History of ecosystem approach

  • Challenges of implementing an ecosystem approach

Session B – Scientific Framework

  • Case Studies on ecosystem-based management at different scales

  • The challenge of limited or lack of integration necessary for ecosystem-based management (many dimensions)

  • How can science move an ecosystem approach and ecosystem-based management forward?

  • How can modelling move the application of ecosystem approach and ecosystem-based management forward?

  • What emerging technologies and integrative tools are needed to apply use of an ecosystem-based management?

Day 2

Session C – Socio-economic Dimensions

  • What governance/institutional frameworks will help move an ecosystem approach?

  • What education is necessary to move an ecosystem approach and ecosystem-based management forward?

  • What economic and social science tools are needed to practice ecosystem-based management?

Session D – Breakout Sessions Focused on Bridging Divides and Identifying Lessons Learned and Future Directions

  • Breakout Session 1 – Identifying successful ways of strengthening science-policy-management linkages

  • Breakout Session 2 – Blue economy and an ecosystem approach

  • Breakout Session 3 – Science translation and education

  • Breakout Session 4 – Dealing with uncertainty

Preliminary planning for the conference is under way by Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society and the University of Windsor. Planned outputs from this conference include: a special issue of Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management and a subsequent monograph in the Ecovision World Monograph Series, AEHMS, Canada (https://aehms.org/publications/).

Invitation

If you are interested in participating or presenting a paper at this conference, or your organization is interested in becoming a sponsor, please contact any of the committee members given below.

On behalf of Organizing Committee:

John Hartig (jhhartig@uwindsor.ca)

Mohi Munawar (mohi.munawar@dfo-mpo.gc.ca)

Catherine Febria (catherine.febria@uwindsor.ca);

Bradley Cardinale (bradcard@umich.edu)

Doug Haffner (haffner@uwindsor.ca)

Mohamed Mohamed ('mohamed.mohamed3@canada.ca)

Lei Zhang (zhanglei@uwindsor.ca)

www.aehms.org

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.

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