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Navigating the Transition to Ecosystem-Based Management of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Olsson, P., C. Folke and T.P. Hughes. 2008 Proceedings National Academy of Sciences, USA 105:9489-9494 (2008).


We analyze the strategies and actions that enable transitions toward ecosystem-based management using the recent governance changes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as a case study. The interplay among individual actors, organizations, and institutions at multiple levels is central in such transitions. A flexible organization, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, was crucial in initiating the transition to ecosystem-based management. This agency was also instrumental in the subsequent transformation of the governance regime and provided leadership throughout the process. Strategies involved internal reorganization and management innovation, leading to an ability to coordinate the scientific community, to increase public awareness of environmental issues and problems, to involve a broader set of stakeholders, and to maneuver the political system for support at critical times. The transformation process was induced by increased pressure on the Great Barrier Reef (from terrestrial runoff, overharvesting, and global warming) that triggered a new sense of urgency to address these challenges. The focus of governance shifted from protection of selected individual reefs to stewardship of the larger-scale seascape. The study emphasizes the significance of stewardship that can change patterns of interactions among key actors and allow for new forms of management and governance to emerge in response to environmental change. This example illustrates that enabling legislations or other social bounds are essential, but not sufficient for shifting governance toward adaptive comanagement of complex marine ecosystems.

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Keywords: adaptive governance, ecosystem services, transformation

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