NOAA Celebrates 10 Years of Integrated Ecosystem Assessments

Originally published by NOAA Fisheries on February 5, 2021

NOAA is celebrating 10 years of implementing Integrated Ecosystem Assessments—a science and management effort to integrate all components of an ecosystem, including human needs and activities, into the decision-making process. We have published a special issue of the Coastal Management Journal, titled Ten years of NOAA Integrated Ecosystem Assessment.” It is comprised of seven papers that highlight how, over the past 10 years, scientists have used the IEA approach to build:

  1. Relationships with other scientists from different disciplines, stakeholders, and managers
  2. A community of practice and share lessons learned
  3. An improved process to integrate social, economic, ecological, and physical components of the ecosystem together

This approach is a key part of NOAA’s ecosystem science enterprise. The introduction of the special issue provides a detailed description of each step of the approach.

NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment Approach (Credit: NOAA IEA Program, Avi Litwack)

The IEA approach is executed by scientists across the globe. Our IEA program is a NOAA-wide initiative that oversees the direction and execution of IEAs within U.S. ocean and coastal ecosystems. The program currently has five active regional programs:

  1. California Current
  2. West Hawai‘i
  3. Alaska
  4. Northeast
  5. Gulf of Mexico

Each region executes the IEA approach in different ways depending on the regional issues and needs. One of the many benefits of the IEA approach is its flexibility to meet the goals of the people and ecosystems involved as the environment and human activities change. 

Origins of the IEA Approach

The IEA program was developed in the early 2000s and in response to calls from the NOAA Science Advisory Board for marine ecosystem-based management. The second paper of the special issue reviews the origins of the IEA framework and the NOAA IEA program.  In this paper, five leaders of the early days of IEA development stressed the need to adapt the IEA approach to shifting governance structures. They described how the IEA approach does not threaten to replace current management approaches but complements them. 

The IEA Approach Builds Resilient Ecosystems, Communities, and Economies

Since the establishment of the IEA program, NOAA scientists have used the IEA approach to build trust and meaningful relationships with a variety of stakeholders and managers. The third paper highlights five case studies that demonstrate how the IEA approach can be adapted to provide the ecosystem science, including social science, required to build resilient coastal ecosystems, communities, and economies. Building resilient ecosystems requires more than managing individual resources but also the integration of human needs and activities. These case studies provide examples for how scientists used the IEA approach to incorporate those components. 

An important step in the IEA approach is identifying, selecting, and when needed, developing indicators—measures of key components of the ecosystem. Population growth is an example of an indicator used to evaluate the status of marine ecosystems. The fourth paper reviews how indicators were identified in case studies from seven different ecosystems over the first 10 years of the NOAA IEA program. Identifying effective indicator development strategies will better prepare future efforts to integrate social and ecological information together. 

The development of indicators also requires compiling, managing, analyzing, and communicating large amounts of data. This presents many challenges. In order to address this challenge IEA scientists have begun to adopt open science—public access to scientific data, methods, and products. The fifth paper provides a snapshot of the state of open science practices in IEAs across the United States. IEA practitioners adoption of open science has improved the flexibility, reproducibility, and efficiency of the scientific workflows within the IEA framework. 

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adapted each step of the IEA approach to address species, fleet, habitat, and climate interactions in fisheries under their management. The sixth paper details the process taken by the council to identify high-priority fisheries and their components. This decision framework allowed for an extensive, positive, and collaborative process between managers, stakeholders, and scientists. 

An important component of ecosystem-based management is considering human needs and activities when making management decisions. The seventh paper addresses the need to look beyond economic welfare of communities when evaluating the status of humans and ecosystems. Other kinds of well-being derived from the environment and fisheries should also be considered. The IEA approach was adapted to develop locally relevant well-being indicators for Sitka, Alaska, which is one of the most highly engaged fishing communities in the United States. The resulting indicators can be used to track how fishery shocks may reverberate through social systems and affect the fishing community. 

Continued Demand for the IEA Approach

As the IEA program moves into a new decade with increasingly complex ecosystem issues on the horizon, there is a continued push for the IEA approach. This is driven by a clear understanding in the scientific community that a comprehensive approach is needed to produce robust science to address these complex environmental issues. There is a range of recommendations for future development of the IEA approach:

  1. Broaden the stakeholder base
  2. Develop objectives and reference points in partnership with end-users
  3. Increase diversity of IEA practitioners to reflect the diversity of communities that IEA serves
  4. Increase development of readily updatable products
  5. Assess and prioritize demands for IEA
  6. Increase collaboration across disciplines and sectors
  7. Seek opportunities to engage with emerging governance structures
  8. Strengthen support for IEA by effectively communicating its stories

NOAA will continue to engage with scientists, stakeholders and other interested parties to build off the success of the past 10 years in implementing IEAs. Learn more about IEA efforts