Better integration of sectoral planning and management approaches for the interlinked ecology of the open oceans

Open oceans are one of the least protected, least studied and most inadequately managed ecosystems on Earth. Three themes were investigated that differentiate the open ocean (areas beyond national jurisdiction and deep area within exclusive economic zones) from other realms and must be considered when developing planning and management options: ecosystem interactions, especially between benthic and pelagic systems; potential effects of human activities in open oceans on ecological linkages; and policy context and options. A number of key ecological factors differentiate open oceans from coastal systems for planners and managers: (1) many species are widely distributed and, especially for those at higher trophic levels, wide ranging; (2) the sizes and boundaries of biogeographical domains (patterns of co-occurrence of species, habitats and ecosystem processes) vary significantly by depth; (3) habitat types exhibit a wide range of stabilities, from ephemeral (e.g., surface frontal systems) to hyper-stable (e.g., deep sea); and (4) vertical and horizontal linkages are prevalent. Together, these ecological attributes point to interconnectedness between open ocean habitats across large spatial scales. Indeed, human activities – especially fishing, shipping, and potentially deep-sea mining and oil and gas extraction – have effects far beyond the parts of the ocean in which they operate. While managing open oceans in an integrated fashion will be challenging, the ecological characteristics of the system demand it. A promising avenue forward is to integrate aspects of marine spatial planning (MSP), systematic conservation planning (SCP), and adaptive management. These three approaches to planning and management need to be integrated to meet the unique needs of open ocean systems, with MSP providing the means to meet a diversity of stakeholder needs, SCP providing the structured process to determine and prioritise those needs and appropriate responses, and adaptive management providing rigorous monitoring and evaluation to determine whether actions or their modifications meet both ecological and defined stakeholder needs. The flexibility of MSP will be enhanced by the systematic approach of SCP, while the rigorous monitoring of adaptive management will enable continued improvement as new information becomes available and further experience is gained.

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