Core Element 3: Geographic Scales

Ecosystem-based management (EBM) focuses on specific geographic areas, which may be small or large. Preferably, the boundaries are defined by nature, not politics. The geographic area is viewed both as a collection of smaller places and as a component of a larger geography. To bridge these geographic scales, EBM practitioners find ways to share information, align goals, and take complementary action with other organizations and individuals.

Focus Questions

  • What smaller areas—such as water bodies, jurisdictions, or habitat types—are components of the focal geographic area?
  • What role do the smaller areas play in generating nature's services?
  • In what larger areas is the focal area embedded—such as an ocean basin, exclusive economic zone (EEZ), or biogeographic region?
  • How does the focal area contribute to nature’s services of the larger areas in which it is embedded?
  • How can scientific information available for the smaller and larger areas be used to understand the ecology and socioeconomics of the focal area?
  • How can organizations that focus on different geographic scales share knowledge, align goals, and take complementary action to address the Core Elements of EBM?

Learn More

Listed below are selected resources for learning about and implementing this Core Element of EBM. The list is far from comprehensive and highlights only a few especially useful examples.


Chapter 5: Ecological Cross-Scale Interactions in Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans
Edited by Heather Leslie and Karen McLeod

Conservation Planning for Ecosystem Services
Chan KMA, et al. 2006. PLoS Biol 4(11):e379

Reports from completed ecoregional assessments
The Nature Conservancy

Case Studies

Chesapeake Information Management System
The Chesapeake Information Management System (CIMS) is an organized, distributed library of information and software tools designed to increase basin-wide public access to Chesapeake Bay information.

North Slope Science Initiative
The North Slope Science Initiative (NSSI) is an intergovernmental effort to increase collaboration at the local, state, and federal levels to address research, inventory, and monitoring needs related to development activities on the North Slope of Alaska.

Puget Sound Partnership
The Puget Sound Partnership is a community effort of citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses working together to restore and protect Puget Sound.

Gulf of Maine Area Program
The Gulf of Maine Area program of the Census of Marine Life provides information about the role of habitats in generating ecosystem services in the Gulf of Maine region.


Ecological Service Value Index (ESVI)
The Ecological Service Value Index (ESVI) indicates the relative value of a location based on a composite measure of biological resources and human uses of natural resources.

Seascapes: Getting to Know the Sea Around Us. A Guide to Characterizing Marine and Coastal Areas
The marine area characterization process described in Seascapes produces a well-rounded, comprehensive, and reliable compendium of scientific information for addressing environmental and resource management issues.

Integrated ecosystem assessment (IEA)
An IEA is a formal synthesis and quantitative analysis of information on relevant natural and socio–economic factors in relation to specified ecosystem management goals.

Ecoregional assessment (ERA)
An ERA compiles, organizes, and analyzes information about distribution and vulnerability of species, habitats, and nature’s services.


Legislative Atlas
The Legislative Atlas displays the spatial footprint of U.S. state and federal laws, policies, and regulations for the ocean.

Multipurpose Marine Cadastre
The Multipurpose Marine Cadastre allows users to visually analyze and explore geospatial data for marine spatial planning, and it provides direct access to authoritative marine cadastral data from U.S. federal and state sources.

MINOE identifies laws, regulations, and agencies relevant to management of specific ecosystems, based on ecosystem models constructed or imported by the user.

Marine Geospatial Ecology Tools
Marine Geospatial Ecology Tools (MGET) is an open-source geoprocessing toolbox designed for coastal and marine researchers and GIS analysts who work with spatially-explicit ecological and oceanographic data in scientific or management workflows.

Habitat Digitizer Extension
The Habitat Digitizer Extension can be used to create hierarchical classification schemes for habitats and to delineate habitats from aerial photographs, satellite images, side scan sonar, and other georeferenced images.

Habitat Priority Planner
This tool aids in making decisions about habitat conservation, restoration, and land use planning with habitat analyses and scenarios that are consistent, repeatable, and transparent.


VLI Marine Gazetteer
The VLI Marine Gazetteer (VLIMAR) provides downloadable mapping data for several types of global ocean regions, such as exclusive economic zones (EEZs), FAO Fishing Areas, and Longhurst Biogeographical Provinces.

Marine Ecoregions of the World
Marine Ecoregions of the World (MEOW) is a biogeographic classification of species and ecological communities in the ocean, focusing on coastal and continental shelf areas.

Large Marine Ecosystems
Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs) is a classification of ocean areas adjacent to the continents in coastal waters.

Geospatial One Stop
The Geospatial One Stop provides access to ocean and coastal data that is useful for research, planning and management, such as bathymetry, shoreline, sea floor mapping, habitat, land cover, seismic data, fisheries, and marine boundaries.

Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS)
OBIS provides a portal or gateway to many datasets containing information on where and when marine species have been recorded.

Connection with other Core Elements (CEs) of EBM

CE1:Nature's Services, CE4:Ecological Linkages, CE5:Cumulative Impacts, CE6:Tradeoffs Among Human Activities
Nature's services, ecological linkages, cumulative impacts, and tradeoffs among human activities may vary in kind or significance with geographic scale, and EBM considers differences and linkages among scales.

CE2:Scientific Evidence
Scientific evidence from larger and smaller geographic scales is used to understand the ecological dynamics of the focal geographic area.

CE7:Adaptive Management
Adaptive management recognizes that management issues, actions, and solutions may differ among geographic areas.

CE8:Network of People and Information
EBM requires interaction of people and information from smaller and larger geographic scales.


Read about Core Element 4: Ecological Linkages