In the United States, NOAA has developed an integrated ecosystem assessment as an approach to ecosystem-based fisheries management (EBFM).[1] The framework organises and summarises social-ecological evidence so that it can be integrated to inform a holistic management response.[2] Each fisheries management council applies the framework differently to suit the local context and available evidence.

There are several steps in the assessment process:


  1. Define the system and the outcomes you want to achieve. Taking a collaborative approach, a scoping exercise is used to identify the relevant ecological, social and economic components of the ecosystem, which become part of the conceptual model to show the structure and connections within it. Evidence that feeds into the model can include scientific information, place-based knowledge and qualitative information, as shown in the models developed for two fisheries in Southeast Alaska.[2] This process also identifies knowledge gaps. Management or planning goals and objectives need to be clearly defined at this step. The model serves as the basis for future assessment against the objectives, and can be used to structure simulation modelling tools. Several regions in the US have done this first step of the integrated ecosystem assessment.
Diagram showing the IEA process.

The integrated ecosystem approach process. Image credit: NOAA.

  1. Choose indicators and use these to assess the ecosystem. The next step is to identify, select and validate indicators that capture the status and trends of the key ecosystem components defined in step one. These are qualitative or quantitative data points that provide a measure of how the ecosystem is doing. Where indicators aren’t available these need to be developed. The indicators are then used to collectively assess the status of the ecosystem and are reported in an Ecosystem Status Report for fisheries managers and stakeholders. A lack of scientifically rigorous and sensitive indicators that are logically linked to ecosystem outcomes to decision makers may provide a roadblock. Indicators have been developed and Ecosystem Status Reports produced for several regions in the US.

A lack of scientifically rigorous and sensitive indicators that are logically linked to ecosystem outcomes to decision makers may provide a roadblock.

  1. Assess the risk to the ecosystem from different pressures. This step involves performing an Ecosystem Risk Assessment to determine the probability that different natural and human pressures, including management actions, could cumulatively cause undesirable outcomes for the components of the ecosystem identified in the first step. NOAA has developed a framework to determine the type of assessment that should be used based on different analytical approaches and system complexity, and alternative frameworks have been developed by other groups. The results can help prioritise management action. An Ecosystem Risk Assessment has been completed for the Northeast in 2020 and is underway for the Eastern Bering Sea.


  1. Evaluate how different management strategies could impact outcomes for the ecosystem. In the final stage, the findings from the assessment are used to evaluate the impacts of different management strategies on the objectives defined in step 1, demonstrating how each may contribute to declines or improvements in ecosystem health any trade-offs between options. Management Strategy Evaluations are a decision support tool – it does not prescribe management approaches but rather inform managers which strategies could be the most useful in achieving their objectives. The West Hawai’i Management Strategy Evaluation for a coral reef ecosystem shows the outcome of the full Integrated Ecosystem Assessment process and shines a light on management trade-offs while highlighting the tension between ecosystem recovery and use of ecosystem services.[3]

The potential of an EAFM to fisheries management is underscored in our theme 6 recommendations.


[1] NOAA Fisheries (2017) Understanding ecosystem-based fisheries management.

[2] Rosellon-Druker, J. et al. (2019) Development of social-ecological conceptual models as the basis for an integrated ecosystem assessment framework in Southeast Alaska, Ecology and Society, 24(3).

[3] Weijerman, M. et al. (2018) Evaluating management strategies to optimise coral reef ecosystem services, Journal of Applied Ecology, 55(4), pp. 1823–1833.