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A Missing Ingredient in the Recipe for Healthy Ecosystems


NOAA Fisheries social scientists stress the importance of human dimensions in environmental management.

By Matt Ellis | Posted: June 9, 2016


Tribal fishermen set nets near Sisualik, a traditional fish camp for the community of Noatak, Alaska in the Kotzebue Sound region. Credit: Katie Moerlein.

Every recipe provides measurements and ingredients. Follow the directions and the final product should turn out as expected. Forget one thing and the dish could be ruined.

Environmental management is a lot like a recipe for a healthy ecosystem. If all of the appropriate parameters are incorporated and measurements properly made, then managers expect to see certain results in the ecosystem. But what if the management recipe is missing a key ingredient?

A recent paper published in Science argues that many environmental conservation and management efforts are indeed missing a key ingredient, and that ingredient is us.

Why are humans essential to the management process?

People are part of the ecosystem, but too often we are guilty of operating as an external entity, overseeing the state of the “natural world” without considering our place in it and our desires for its ideal condition.

This detachment can be detrimental to the effectiveness of management decisions, according to social scientists Karma Norman (NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center) and Melissa Poe (Washington Sea Grant). Norman and Poe co-authored the Science paper with colleagues Phil Levin (Northwest Fisheries Science Center) and Sara Breslow (National Research Council post-doc with NOAA Fisheries) of the Social Well-being Indicators for Marine Management (SWIMM) team, which was funded by Washington Sea Grant and NOAA's Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) program. 

Management decisions affect the well-being of the environment, but they affect human well-being too. Human well-being can also drive which management decisions are made in the first place.

Despite this, the concept of human well-being is largely absent from many efforts to pursue sustainability goals. To improve future management decisions, the SWIMM team proposed a set of social indicators that allow human well-being to be incorporated in all management plans.


Measurements inform social indicators, which in turn define the domain. The basic needs domain (illustrated here) is one of ten that make up the social concept of human well-being.

What is the definition of human well-being?

Human well-being encompasses many characteristics of a functional society, including basic needs, access to social services, health, education, social connectedness, planning and management, safety, environmental conditions, economic security, and population demographics. These characteristics can be measured and evaluated with the help of indicators.

By assessing these social characteristics, social scientists can determine whether certain sectors of a community are thriving, maintaining, or declining. The status of the community can have a major impact on the management decisions that are made and the way a community responds to those decisions.

For instance, a community that lacks access to basic needs like food, water, and housing might be less capable of contributing resources to environmental conservation efforts. In a community affected by sea level rise, managers could be forced to make certain decisions to protect local infrastructure and ensure human safety. A community that relies heavily on the seafood industry might need to make decisions to maintain the economic security of its fishing sector.

“You have to be able to identify trade-offs between different aspects of the environment and the community. This conceptual model is a framework to understand the connection between a healthy ecosystem and a healthy society,” Norman said.


Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon supports both local wildlife and communities, offering scenic river canyon hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, and world class rock-climbing. Credit: Melissa Poe. 

How is NOAA Fisheries incorporating human dimensions?

The work being done by Norman and Poe continues a trend in fisheries management that has gained significant momentum in the past 10 years. The idea that fisheries management should consider the sustainability of communities and their economies has been around for decades—the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires it under National Standard 8. But the social indicators proposed by the SWIMM team signify a shift from single-species management toward ecosystem-based management, which incorporates both human and non-human dimensions.

As indicators of human well-being are further refined, they will provide a means to quantify and evaluate community conditions nationwide. The next step is for communities and regional fishery management councils to apply the indicators to their local and regional management considerations, adapting them to their specific concerns.

“We don’t want to take a cookie-cutter approach everywhere without understanding regional needs,” Poe said. “It’s about matching an environmental system to the values, culture, and agency of a political system to act and then doing the groundwork to see who needs to be at the table to consider these things. Context is key.”

It is important that management decisions take into account the needs of the community beforehand, to avoid unintended consequences later on.

NOAA Fisheries Senior Research Economist Doug Lipton reinforced this point. “If you’re not thinking about human dimensions all the way through, it will be very difficult to indicate successes along the way. And there may even be surprises,” he said. “You need community engagement right at the beginning and you need to allow the public to voice their wants and needs.”

“We’re early on in the process,” Lipton added. “But as we get these ideas out there, we’ll get better at managing at the community level.”

There’s still much work to be done to incorporate these practices, but at least now management recipes won’t be missing one very important ingredient.