The Recipe for ecosystem overviews in ICES

“How do we transfer our improved understanding of human interactions with the marine ecosystem into our operational advice?” This was the central question addressed by ICES Workshop on Ecosystem Overviews (WKECOVER).
Published: 20 February 2013

​​WKECOVER was designed to carry forward the development of ecosystem overviews, with a focus on identifying a structure that would meet ICES needs and feed into ICES advice. Thewords "application" and "concise" were emphasised as key in the construction of overviews.

According to discussions at WKECOVER, ecocsystem overviews have four key purposes:

  1. to describe the location, scale, management, and assessment boundaries of eco-regions;

  2. to alert ICES expert groups to situations within the environment and ecosystems that are expected to significantly influence their advice;

  3. to describe the distribution of human activity and resultant pressure on the environment and ecosystem;

  4. to describe the state of the ecosystem and to comment on pressures accounting for changes in state.

Expected audiences and users of the overviews include regional commissions (e.g. OSPAR, HELCOM etc), ICES expert groups, and the wider ICES community and network. Owing to this range of audience, the workshop recognised that the overviews will be evolving documents, driven by both top-down (advisory requests and ICES decisions about strategic direction) and bottom-up processes (information streams highlighting new issues from the ICES community and network). It is also foreseen that the overviews will highlight ICES capacity to provide integrated advice, which is expected to meet the future needs of advice on the environmental status of the marine ecosystem.

The workshop output is, in effect, a recipe book for developing and updating ecosystem overviews, which will be based on the following sections:

  • Ecoregion description;

  • Key signals within the environment and ecosystem;

  • Activity and pressure;

  • State.

The workshop group defined the contents of each of the sections of the overview and partially developed overviews for three example ecoregions, while proposing update frequencies, responsibilities for updates, and quality control of the contents. It was important to highlight how the overviews could be operationally maintained and also the criteria for including information in the overviews.

Incorporating material into the overviews and progressively improving them will require the engagement of many parts of the ICES community. WKECOVER proposed that sections 1 and 2 of the overview should be prioritised for short-term development and should appear in the 2013 advice, with sections 3 and 4 developed in the longer-term. Encouragingly, ICES Data centre and spatial facility made significant progress developing section 1, Ecoregion description, during the workshop. Lively discussions suggested that there was a risk that sections 3 and 4 might become repositories for all known information on "pressure" and "state" in each ecoregion - something that wouldn't help the ICES advisory process - and workshop participants concluded that it was most important to focus on indicators of direct relevance to the advisory and management process in these sections.

Key signals in the environment and ecosystem that would feature in section 2 were defined as those environmental, biotic, or human influences that are expected to significantly influence advice developed by expert groups. Expert groups, and in particular the regional integrated assessment groups, can play an important role in identifying key signals, by screening the wide range of environmental and ecosystem signals in eco-regions and identifying those that have a significant effect on the way in which other expert groups would develop advice. This requires integration with the assessment benchmark process to account for key signals in the environment and ecosystem. Where existing assessment models could readily be modified to account for key signals in the environment and ecosystem then this could be done as part of the normal assessment cycle.

To best support their purposes and ICES advisory needs, the workshop concluded that the overviews must be living documents. Overviews will need to be regularly reviewed in the context of other sections of the ICES advice to ensure that inconsistencies are identified and rectified and that incompatibilities are addressed. Ultimately, it would be the ICES community, drawing on their scientific and advisory expertise, that would need to guide the users' interpretation of the overview contents, and thus workshop participants were keen to stress that contents of the overview should always be supported by interpretive narrative. The structure of the overviews will now be discussed by various ICES groups and the integrated ecosystem assessment groups will further develop and populate the documents. It is hoped that WKECOVER has kicked off a process that will lead to integration of advice on human interactions with the marine environment. So the recipe, whilst not resulting in a tasty dessert, will hopefully lead to a better blend of our scientific research with the advisory process in ICES.

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WKECOVER met at the ICES Secretariat in Copenhagen in January.

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The Recipe for ecosystem overviews in ICES

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