EBM Tools


The Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) Tools Network is one of the premier sources of information about coastal and marine planning and management tools in the United States and internationally. Coastal and marine planning and management tools help practitioners incorporate scientific and socioeconomic information into decision making. The mission of the Network is to promote healthy coastal and marine ecosystems and communities through the use of tools that help incorporate ecosystem considerations into management.

The Network works to connect coastal and marine practitioners with appropriate tools through a wide variety of outreach and training activities. Learn more about services the Network provides.

The EBM Tools Network is currently focusing on tools for:

  • Climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning
  • Ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning
  • Integrated land-sea planning to minimize the impacts of land use on coastal and marine environments.

Learn more about Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) and EBM tools.

Case Studies

Watershed-based Analysis of Threats to Coral Reefs
World Resources Institute and partners have produced watershed-based analysis of threats to coral reefs in the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef to support more targeted and effective policy interventions. The Land-based Sources of Threat to Coral Reefs in the US Virgin Islands study used several spatial and statistical techniques to characterize watersheds across the USVI with regard to relative erosion rates and the threat of land-based sources of sediment and pollutant delivery to coastal waters. An atlas was developed in conjunction with this work, providing a series of spatial indicators of watershed-based sources of threat to coral reefs in the USVI. The International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN) Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) study coupled the evaluated Nonpoint Source Pollution and Erosion Comparison Tool (N-SPECT), developed by NOAA, and a circulation model, the Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) to derive estimates of runoff, erosion, and pollutant sources from across the landscape and examine the transport of sediment and pollutants along the MAR. The analysis provided information and tools for examining the potential impact of different land use and development options in the region and the associated impacts on water quality on the MAR. Learn more.

Creating Resilient Communities Initiative in South Carolina
The Creating Resilient Communities Initiative in the tri-county region of Lowcountry South Carolina (Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester Counties) is using GIS-based tools to map regional resources, identify areas at risk from natural hazards and conservation areas that may help to mitigate hazards’ impacts, and present this information in a people-friendly way that will help stakeholders and the public make informed decisions. The analysis will use CommunityViz software to create hypothetical scenarios, organize information, and form a framework for collaboration and discussion. CommunityViz will provide maps, graphs, 3-D models and other tools for easily presenting information and showing the effects of different decisions on the region's future building and growth. Additional science and planning models that will be integrated with CommunityViz are coastal hazard tools such as HAZUS and SLOSH, sea level rise models, and habitat protection tools such as NatureServe Vista and The Nature Conservancy's eco-regional assessment process. The Community Vulnerability Assessment Tool (CVAT) will be used to identify and weight hazards (like storm surge and erosion) and assets (like housing, roads, and habitat), and then overlay them to find areas of vulnerability. Scenarios and potential mitigation steps will then be compared. Learn more.

Report on The Use of Models in Great Lakes Decision Making
This report analyzes four cases in which computer simulation models served as decision support tools, all drawn from the Laurentian Great Lakes. Each case was assessed for how models have been used in decision making, their strengths and weaknesses as decision tools, the ways they have enhanced or undermined decision processes, and ways their development and use could be improved. The report draws on in-depth interviews with modelers, managers, decision-makers, and stakeholders and the scientific and technical literature related to each case to understand the "success" of models as decision support tools in three areas: (1) deliberative effectiveness (fostering communication among participants); (2) explanatory effectiveness (achieving a shared understanding of the problem and solutions); and (3) policy relevance (relevant to the actual policy decisions being made). Learn more.

Linking Joint Objectives of Conserving Biodiversity and Sustaining Fishery Production: Case Study from the Pacific Northwest
The Nature Conservancy and partners at NOAA Fisheries, University of British Columbia and the University of Queensland have prepared a case study from the Pacific Northwest Coast that examines approaches and methods for linking biodiversity conservation and fishery production objectives within one spatial planning framework. Two EBM tools were used: the optimized site selection tool, Marxan, and a fisheries-based ecosystem modeling tool, Ecopath with Ecosim (EwE). Two approaches for combining these objectives are illustrated. In the first approach, Marxan solutions are developed with and without data on marine fish. In the second approach, Marxan solutions are directly linked to EwE models through the Ecospace module to evaluate the effects of selecting areas for the conservation of representative biodiversity on fishery production. Learn more.

Meeting Joint Objectives of Conserving Coastal Wetlands and Mitigating Hazards: Case Study from the Florida Panhandle
The Nature Conservancy and partners at NOAA Coastal Services Center and the University of Queensland have prepared a case study from the Florida Panhandle that examines approaches for jointly meeting objectives in biodiversity conservation and coastal hazard mitigation. Three EBM tools were used: the optimized site selection tool, Marxan; the coastal hazards planning tool, Community Vulnerability Assessment Tool (CVAT); and Ecoregional Assessment approach for biodiversity conservation. Learn more.  

Alternatives for Coastal Development: Case Study from Coastal Georgia
NOAA Coastal Services Center has created the Alternatives for Coastal Development: One Site, Three Scenarios website that illustrates three hypothetical development scenarios for a residential area in coastal Georgia. A suite of EBM tools was used to calculate and compare economic, environmental, and social indicators for each scenario and visualize the scenarios. EBM tools used include CommunityViz ArcView 3.x extension for indicator development, the SGWater module of the U.S. EPA's free Smart Growth Index software for estimating pollutant runoff, and Visual Nature Studio for creating spatially referenced photorealistic 3-D scenes from each scenario. Learn more.

EBM Project Descriptions/Case Study Compilations

  • The book Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans is the first comprehensive guide to the science and practice of marine EBM. It features case studies of EBM in practice from around the world. Learn more.
  • The University of Michigan Ecosystem Management Initiative has compiled a number of terrestrial and watershed ecosystem management case studies. Learn more.
  • The Lenfest Ocean Program has compiled case studies of U.S. activities in ecosystem-based fisheries management. Learn more .
  • The Eastern Scotian Shelf Integrated Management Initiative has compiled a review of marine ecosystem-based management initiatives throughout the world. Learn more .
  • WWF has compiled cases studies on the implementation of EBM in marine capture fisheries. Learn more.
  • The Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity has assembled a database of case studies on ecosystem approaches to implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity. Learn more
  • The journal article "Marine ecosystem-based management: from characterization to implementation" provides a review of scientific definitions of EBM and management plans for eight marine and coastal ecosystems. Complete reference: Arkema, K.K., et al. 2006. Marine ecosystem-based management: from characterization to implementation. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment .
  • Ecosystem-based Management in New York State: Taking the Next Steps expresses the goals and expectations of a broad diversity of stakeholders to proactively and collaboratively pursue EBM in New York State as part of the New York State Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Act. Learn more.

Getting Started

Gathering data to use in technology tools and using them in an effective manner can be difficult and time consuming.  It is important to understand what EBM tools can and cannot do for your project and what your project wants to get out of tool use, Also, learn more about questions to ask before you start using tools and how to use tools effectively before initiating tool use.

What tools CAN do when used in an effective process:

  • Help you incorporate a wider array of ecosystem and human considerations into decision making.
  • Help you build on (rather than repeat) other's work by using parameter databases, algorithms, and analyses built into tools.
  • Help guide you through processes so you can move from data to decision making more quickly.
  • Save you time and help you explore a wider range of alternatives by automating analyses or processes that occur repeatedly.
  • Help you document what inputs and parameters were used in analyses and reasons that decisions were made.
  • Help build collaboration among diverse project participants by creating a forum where stakeholder groups learn about and need to account for each others' goals and concerns.

What tools do NOT do:

  • Provide answers or decisions.  They can provide quantitative results and visualization to help make decisions, however.
  • Eliminate the need for analyses specific to your project.  In fact, it may not be optimal to use an analytical tool if a project has highly constrained management options or analyses only need to be done a few times.
  • Come with all the data they need.  Projects considering using a tool should examine whether the data to use the tool already exists, and if it doesn't, whether there is sufficient time and resources to gather the necessary data.
  • Eliminate the need to make tradeoffs between competing objectives.  They may be able to help identify solutions that reduce negative impacts, however.
  • Replace the need for intensive human interaction and collaboration or eliminate conflict.  Poor incorporation of tools into an EBM process can actually increase conflict.

Download the The Why Use Tools document [La Versión en Español]. 

Getting Started

This list of questions is designed to help potential EBM tool users figure out what they want to get out of tool use, what resources they have available to use tools, and how they will use tools within their management decision making process.  Having discussions about these questions among all the relevant stakeholders prior to starting to use tools will help a project make more informed decisions about which tools to choose for their project and how they use those tools.

  • What are the specific natural features in your region that your project is interested in protecting, improving, and/or restoring?  Natural features can include terrestrial, freshwater, or marine species, habitats, or ecosystems.  There may be a lot of important natural features, so it is best to focus on the most critical features such as the ones that are most important to the community or ecosystem, the most threatened, or the ones for which you have the best chance of influencing their status.
  • What are the specific social and economic features in your region that your project is interested in protecting, improving, and/or restoring?  Social and economic features can include community or cultural values, human health, the "look" of your landscape or seascape, and recreational or commercial opportunities.  Again, there are probably a lot of important social and economic features, so it is best to focus on the most critical features such as the ones that are the most important to the community, the most threatened, or the ones for which you have the best chance of influencing their status.
  • Why did you choose these natural, social, and economic features?  For example, are they threatened by current or proposed activities, in poor condition, particularly vulnerable, rare, legally protected, or have particular social or religious importance?  Are there any time limits to your ability to preserve or improve these features? For example, are there plans to develop a rare habitat?
  • What staff time and computing and financial resources do you have available for using tools and acquiring training?
  • Who would be using the tools?  For example, would it be internal staff or outside consultants and would all tools be used by a central technology center or by a number of partner organizations? What is the scientific and technical background of any staff that you have available?
  • What data sets do you have available that could provide input into tools?  Datasets include information about the local community (including community composition and economic status) and terrestrial and marine ecosystems and species.
  • Are there local experts available who could serve as community and scientific consultants on the project, including validating data sets and providing expertise where no data sets are available?
  • Stakeholders include anyone who will be influence, be affected by, or be carrying out management actions.  Who are the major stakeholders in your EBM project and what is their role or interest?  Are the government and community organizations that make and enforce land use and natural resource management decisions currently involved in your project?  If so, are they mandated to be there or there out of interest?  If not, do you know why they are not participating?  Is there an existing structure for involving other stakeholder groups such as local residents in making management decisions?
  • What is your sense of how stakeholder groups will react to using technology tools for analyses?  For example, do you anticipate that they will be receptive or apprehensive of using tools at first?  Will they want to participate in actually using technology tools?  Will there be problems communicating with some stakeholder groups because of language or cultural differences or physical isolation?
  • How do you envision analyses or results from EBM tools being used in the management process?  Do you have specific tasks for which you know that you want tools?  Is your primary interest in using tools to generate defensible analyses for decision making for a specific project or incorporating them into your longer term management process?
  • What is your timeframe for getting started using tools and generating analyses or results?  Do you have a specific deadline that you need to meet or a limited duration of funding?

Download the Preparing to Use EBM Tools document [La Versión en Español]. 

Developing Tools

Shifts from single-species management and traditional conservation planning to EBM are rapidly increasing the scope and complexity of EBM tools. For most of the past 20 years, tool development has focused on relatively simple stock assessment models and conservation site selection algorithms. EBM tools, however, need to account for a wide range of factors, particularly dynamic ecosystem processes and socioeconomic factors.
To develop flexible tools that will be most useful to scientists and managers, tool developers should think through the entire tool development and deployment process and develop tools that will be interoperable with a range of other tools.

Best Practices for Developing and Deploying EBM Software Tools

Tool Conceptualization and Functional Specifications

Improved awareness of which tools already exist, how they are structured, and how they are being used can help both developers and users be better prepared when embarking on a new tool development project or determining whether a new tool is needed.

 Recommendations and Cautions

  • Make tools that fill gaps.  Scan all available databases and existing reviews of tools.  Don’t repeat what others have done.  It is simply a waste of time and money.  Search the EBM Tools Network Tools Database. 
  • Keep the specifications simple, focused, and transparent.  After the tool is created, you will have to repeatedly explain what it does and how it works.  Seek a balance between offering a useful tool and a tool that tries to do too much and does none of them well.  Develop interoperability with other tools that perform functions well rather than duplicating that functionality in your tool.
  • Create tools for a specific audience with a specific need and involve those intended users in the design.  Creating tools without a thorough understanding of the need can lead to products that are underused or abandoned.

Software Architecture, Programming, Interface Design, Versioning

New tool development, from the software developer’s perspective, is full of a range of choices as well as pitfalls.  Increased awareness of existing tools, as well as being in contact with a network of developers, can help overcome common problems.

 Recommendations and Cautions

  • Consult with a network of practitioners working within your general area and outside of your own work environment before beginning.   Avoid working in isolation from other tool developers and users.  Search the EBM Tools Network Tools Database to learn about other tools and developers in your general area.
  • Use off-the-shelf functionality where possible.  Even simple functionality can probably be bought at a cheaper cost that it can be created and debugged.  Don’t create “home grown” software where there is a solution already available “out of the box”.  The tendency is toward gross underestimates of both time and resources required to create custom solutions.
  • Focus on enhancing interoperability with other tools.  Avoid using proprietary input and output formats whenever possible.  Learn about best practices for developing interoperable tools.


Tool documentation is required and can be oriented towards three different audiences:  1) End users, 2) Technical professionals/programmers, and 3) Scientific staff.  It can take the form of comprehensive self- help documentation, tutorials, or quick tips and tricks.  It should cover all of the analytical assumptions and limitations inherent within the tool as well as all known issues with using the tool.  

Recommendations and Cautions

  • Be very explicit regarding tool assumptions, limitations, and uncertainties inherent within the tool and the inputs.  Do not oversell the applicability of the tool.  You do not want to create or reinforce the false idea that the tool replaces human decision makers.
  • Make critical information easy to find.  People will likely read this as a last resort and they want the information to be fast and easy to access.  Users do not like to read documentation, especially lengthy sections where key information is not readily found and digested.
  • Use visual and graphical information where possible.  Consult with a visual design professional for help in this arena.  Don’t create a text-heavy or formula-heavy document if at all possible.   

Establishing credibility

Tool users want to know that the results from using the tool are accurate, relevant for decision making, and transparent.  This credibility is established through documentation, testing and validation, peer reviewed literature, and published case studies of application.  Validation and case studies made independent of the tool developers will enhance a tool’s credibility.

 Recommendations and Cautions

  • Validate the tool results by encouraging or conducting research to test the results and assumptions in the real world.  Don’t ignore the fact the many tools have a long list of established publications that back their use and, that to be competitive, your tool will have to do the same.
  • Be prepared to backup all spatial analyses and formulas used in the tool with peer-reviewed literature.   Avoid creating your own, brand new, ways of doing an analysis if there is an established, credible, and equally-effective method that you can adopt.  It is ultimately easier and cheaper than designing new research for validation and testing.
  • Try to establish and cultivate a strong user community that can generate case studies of use of the tool.  Don’t assume that you and your development team will be able to establish the credibility of your tool alone.


Who will maintain and host the tool?  How much time, resources, and money are required for long term upkeep and maintenance?   How will customer feedback be collected, organized, and addressed? How will updates, bug fixes, and the release of new versions be handled?  When should a tool project call it quits?   All of these questions must be answered for any group that wishes to support and maintain a tool over the long term.

Recommendations and Cautions

  • Develop a plan for long-term maintenance and upgrades of the tool.
  • Have a good way to track bugs, feedback, and suggested improvements to the tool.  Consider using a system that is specifically designed for this type of work.  Don’t assume that you can track all of the user comments through email or spreadsheets.  This will quickly become unmanageable.  
  • Budget significant programmer and project manager time for maintenance.  Don’t assume that maintenance will be cheap or be done on an ad-hoc basis.  Other priorities will always take precedent without clear dedicated resources.

Marketing and Communications

A tool investment is not worth making if potential users never find out about the tool.  From Web presence to publications and conferences, marketing and communication builds the awareness that will eventually increase the appropriate application of tools in critical coastal management applications.

 Recommendations and Cautions

  • Develop a strong Web presence for your tool.  This ideally would be a place where users can learn about your tool and share information with other users.  Good Web design requires a significant investment of time and energy.
  • It is worth the expenditure to enlist both visual design and content design experts in the creation of the Web presence for your tool.  Web sites that are not well designed and don’t include up to date information can damage the reputation of your tool.
  • Establish some early, relevant, and successful case studies that demonstrate the tool’s utility.  Potential users are unlikely to spend the time learning and applying a tool without some track record.
  • Develop outreach materials tailored to the practices and language of your audience(s).  A message mismatched with the audience will be ineffective.


Training is essential to establishing and growing a user base for a new tool.  A number of options exist for training new users on tools:  1) Tutorials and e-learning, 2) Standard training classes, 3) Customized training classes, and 4) One-on-one instruction and technical support.

 Recommendations and Cautions

  • Evaluate what training is needed to use your tool. Use early adopters and custom one-on-one training to understand training needs and appropriate training offerings.  Training must be designed for a specific audience.  A training that is poorly designed for the audience can sometime diminish interest in a tool.  Misjudging training needs may lead to a number of failed applications of the tool.
  • Dedicate significant resources to development of a training program for your tool.  It will pay off in greater use and acceptance of your tool.  Don’t assume that you can develop training as an afterthought.  Developing a great training program will require almost as much time as developing a great tool.
  • Develop a formal training program for your tool and use the knowledge of professional learning designers and trainers if at all possible.  Knowledge of adult learning styles and techniques is critical to effective training.  Don’t assume that the tool development team will create the tool training by themselves, since they will rarely have the full range of skills to design and deliver effective training. 

Field Deployment and Support

What does it take to get a tool from its first release to it being used regularly in a real world setting and having a positive impact on the decision making process it was designed to address?  It requires a keen understanding of how what kinds of human and technical resources are required to deploy a tool in the field.  Understanding and planning this process is a crucial step for any organization that wishes to promote the appropriate use and application of tools.

 Recommendations and Cautions

  • When embarking on the field deployment of a tool, make sure that you have an interdisciplinary team of people who understand not only the technical aspects of running the tool, but also includes science staff who can assist in asking the appropriate questions.  Be sure to clearly understand the decision making process you are influencing.  Many efforts fail to properly integrate tools into the decision making process because the interaction with the tool was limited to GIS professionals or other technical staff.  It takes an interdisciplinary team to truly integrate tools into decision making.   
  • Focus on stakeholder engagement.  You must have a strategy to communicate the pertinent results of the tool to your stakeholder group.  You must accomplish this without unduly burdening them with the technical aspects of the tool.  It is important to include people on your field deployment team with specific knowledge and experience with stakeholder engagement.  Stakeholder groups will quickly reject a tool if it is perceived to be irrelevant to decision needs or overly complicated.  It is important that stakeholders feel that the tool is there to serve their needs and not intrusive to the process.

Best Practices for Developing Interoperable EBM Software Tools

Ecosystem-based management involves integrating information and methodologies from diverse fields (such as ecology and economics), sectors (conservation, industry), and sources (scientific studies, traditional knowledge). It can also involve integrating diverse software tools, such as data acquisition tools, ecosystem models, conservation site prioritization tools, and stakeholder engagement tools. By designing tools to be easily linked—i.e., by making them “interoperable”—developers can ease the complexity of implementing EBM projects. The following best practices describe steps that tool developers can take to improve the interoperability of their tools.

Address interoperability early in the development cycle
Developing a tool that interoperates with others is more complicated than developing one that operates by itself. Maximize your chance for success by designing for interoperability from the start, rather than trying to add it on later. Allocate a larger budget than you would for a stand-alone tool, both for initial development and for ongoing maintenance. Recruit developers who have experience developing interoperable software.

Select an appropriate interoperability method
Consider a simple EBM project that links two tools in a workflow: A → B There are several popular methods for linking the tools: 

  • Direct invocation – in this method, tool A programmatically invokes and controls B to accomplish a specific task. B may be a stand-alone tool capable of running on its own or it may be a programming library, component, or web service expressly designed to be invoked by another tool. In any case, the developer of B usually designs the linkage and the developer of A must adhere to it.
  • Plug-ins – in this method, tool A is designed to allow other tools to be "plugged in" to carry out specific tasks in its internal workflow. B is a "plug-in". As above, A programmatically invokes and controls B, but with this method, the developer of A designs the linkage and the developer of B must adhere to it.
  • Workflow components – in this method, each tool is designed to plug into a workflow system such as the ArcGIS Geoprocessing Modeler or the Kepler scientific workflow system. The workflow system invokes and controls each tool and is responsible for passing data between them. The workflow system determines many aspects of the linkage between the tools and the developers focus mostly on the data passed between them. These data structures are often defined by the developer of whichever tool is written first, and adhered to by the developer of the second tool.
  • Manual data exchange – in this method, the user is responsible for manually executing the tools and passing data between them. Tool A usually outputs files or other data structures that can be read by B. As with workflow components, the data structures are often defined by the developer of whichever tool is written first, and adhered to by the developer of the second tool.

Many considerations can factor into your choice of an interoperability method. Sometimes you will have no choice because you're trying to interoperate with an existing tool. When you do have a choice, consider these points:

  • Manual data exchange is the most popular method and is often the easiest to implement, but it imposes more work on the tool user, who must coordinate the execution of the tools. Linking tools via this technique can also be laborious for programmers when the data structures are in obscure formats.
  • The direct invocation and the plug-in methods can allow seamless integration of the tools and the highest degree of customization of the linkage, but often require highly skilled developers to develop properly. The linkage can break if developers do not carefully coordinate changes to their tools. 
  • Workflow components are often a good compromise between direct invocation and manual data exchange, particularly for tools that do not require user interaction. If your users regularly use a workflow system (such as the ArcGIS Geoprocessing Modeler), consider implementing your tool as a workflow component.

When in doubt, consult an experienced software developer. If possible, consult the developers of the tools that yours will interoperate with.

Define and fully document a formal interoperability interface 
After selecting an interoperability method, identify the specific interoperability scenarios that you will support and those that you won't. Think through all of the details of interactions between your tool and those it links with. Write a formal specification of those details, including the sequential steps in the supported scenarios, the names and parameters of any functions your tool exposes to others, the complete description of data formats written and read by your tool, and so on. These details constitute the interoperability interface for your tool, and the document is called an interface specification. Use widely-adopted, stable technologies and data formats in your interface Select from the technologies and data formats that are most commonly encountered today. Do not select obsolete technologies or formats. Resist the temptation to select brand new ones if doing so would impose an unnecessary learning or programming burden on the developers of tools that will interoperate with yours. If possible, contact those developers and ask what they would prefer.  

Provide interoperability examples
Most developers prefer to start from an example rather than an interface specification. Start by providing the simplest example possible, like the classic "Hello, world" program. Then provide more complex examples that illustrate the most common interoperability scenarios.

Make your source code available to other developers
Ideally, your interface specification should be complete enough that it answers all questions that a developer may have. But occasionally there are questions that can only be resolved by looking at your source code (or talking to you). If you do release your source code, you should select a licensing scheme compatible with the goals of your organization. See www.opensource.org/licenses for more information on open source licenses.

Manage changes to your interface very carefully
When you change your interface, it is very easy to break tools that interoperate with it. For example, if you change the parameters of a function, any code that calls that function will fail until it also is changed. Rather than changing the existing function, consider adding a new function that includes the new parameters. Keep both functions in your interface for a while, until your callers have migrated to the new one. Then remove the old one. When you must make a "breaking change," document it very clearly and notify developers that you know will be affected.

Choose your tool's dependencies very carefully
When your tool takes a dependency on an operating system, programming library, or other software, it forces this dependency upon other tools that interoperate with it. Carefully consider whether your tool's dependencies are satisfactory to the tools that interoperate with yours, and to the users of those tools. Select widely-adopted, stable technologies. Try to minimize the monetary cost and installation and operation complexity imposed on users.

Be careful with UI
If your tool has a user interface (UI), it is likely that developers of tools that interoperate with yours will want to replace or alter your UI. If your tool performs calculations, conducts a simulation, or something like that, separate the UI code from the computational code. Expose the computational functionality from your interoperability interface, so that other tools can present their own UI and then invoke your tool to do the computations. If your tool must present a UI, seek feedback from the developers of the tools that invoke yours.

Write high quality code
When another developer takes a dependency on your tool, he does so because he thinks he can save time. His dream is that your tool will solve some problems for him so he can forget about those problems completely. He doesn't know your code and he doesn't want to. When your code is defective, he usually can't fix it and must work around it. This can be extremely time-consuming and frustrating.

Test your interoperability interface rigorously
Write fake tools that interact with your tool through its interface and exercise its functionality as completely as possible. Run these programs whenever you produce a new version of your tool. If you know of real tools that interoperate with yours, run these tools and verify that they still work. Enlist the aid of the developers of those tools to run tests before you release a new version of your own tool.

Plan and test your packaging and installation strategy
If your tool is invoked by another tool, decide up front whether you will allow or require that tool to package yours with its setup program, or if the user must perform two separate installations. If you will support your tool being packaged by others, be sure to document how this should be done. Determine whether you will allow a multiple versions of your tool to be installed on the machine at the same time. If you will not allow multiple versions, plan how you will handle the "DLL Hell" problem, in which a program invokes your tool but it fails because the user has installed a newer version of your tool than that program was designed to invoke. Give developers of other tools a stable method for identifying the version of your tool that is installed on the machine. If your tool invokes other tools, determine whether it is permissible and feasible to package that tool with your setup program, and consider the other issues mentioned above.

Provide clear, actionable error messages
Do not assume that underlying libraries that you call will report meaningful error messages. Trap errors and report clear, actionable messages.

Provide your email archive, bug list, and source code online When you have a problem calling a function written by someone else and can't find a solution in the documentation for that function, you can often find the answer by searching the Internet. The solution often appears in a message posted to an email list, a forum posting, a bug description, or even the source code of the function you're calling. Make these sources of information available for your own tool by posting them on a web site.

Support developers who contact you 
Clearly specify how to get in contact with you. When a developer contacts you, respond as quickly as possible. Plan to support developers after your project has completed. This may require a budget for ongoing maintenance. If you are unable to provide support anymore, clearly say so.

[These best practices were developed by Jason J. Roberts from Duke University with input from EBM Tools Network members.]

About EBM Tools

Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) tools are methods and software that help practitioners incorporate scientific and socioeconomic information into decision making. EBM tools can help:

  • Develop models of ecosystems
  • Generate scenarios illustrating the consequences of different management decisions on natural resources and the economy
  • Facilitate stakeholder involvement in planning processes.

The diagram below (Halpin et al., In press) shows the range of EBM tools.

Search for tools in the EBM Tools Database.



Learn more about:


Best Practices for Using EBM Tools

Although types of EBM tools and EBM projects differ greatly, the following advice can be helpful for avoiding common mistakes when using EBM tools and for using EBM tools effectively.  In many situations, the process for using tools and communicating tool results is just as important to whether tool results are used in management as the tools or tool results.  Download the Using EBM Tools Effectively document [La Versión en Español].

Getting Started

  • Make sure you understand the time, funding, and expertise needed to collect the data needed to use the tool (or tools); run the tool; and interpret and communicate tool results.  [See Getting Started for a more comprehensive list of issues to discuss when getting started using tools.  One of the best ways to gather this information is by talking to previous tool users and the tool developer. 
  • Allow enough time for an iterative process. Tool use is most effective when stakeholders can explore a range of alternatives and make improvements to scenarios (and possibly the tools themselves) as they learn about the process, the trade-offs involved in meeting diverse objectives, and the possible results of different decisions.
  • Make sure you are using tools that provide the types of results that you need. Some tools provide general indices rather than quantitative results, while others provide highly quantitative results which may need to be generalized for management and communication purposes.  In addition, some tools may not provide results at the temporal or spatial scales appropriate for the management decisions that you need to make.
  • Don't expect tools to provide all the answers. Tools are generally best used to make strategic decisions (such as choosing where to place conservation areas to help achieve both fisheries and biodiversity objectives) rather than tactical decisions (such as setting fisheries catch limits).


Data Issues

  • Invest in the data management and documentation process up front by accounting for data management and documentation in project design and budget.  Well-managed and documented data is much more useful to a project because it can be used by multiple collaborators over a long time period.
  • Recognize that poor input into tools or models will result in poor output. There is no clear threshold for when data or analyses are too limited or flawed to be valid, but projects should always be alert to this possibility. Less data precision is needed for regional and/or long-term decisions than local decisions for immediate needs.
  • Recognize that even though data and tools are incomplete and imperfect, decisions will be made on incomplete data whether tools are used or not. Tools may still be able to facilitate and improve EBM processes even if there are data gaps or flawed data.
  • Be open and honest about data gaps and the uncertainty of existing data. Identifying and presenting data gaps up front will lend credibility to the process and help focus resources on gathering needed data.  The data collection process can be a beneficial to a project if it is used as a time to build partnerships and a common body of information.
  • Incorporate human knowledge into the decision making process. Subject matter experts can fill in gaps in existing data sets, and local resource users are often one of the best sources of information about historical and current resource use and condition. Collection of human knowledge should use rigorous social science data collection techniques.
  • Plan for a long-term data acquisition process to ensure a steady stream of current and accurate information.

Engaging Stakeholders and Building Collaborations

  • Figure out the full range of stakeholders for your project and engage them in the EBM process and tool use as soon as possible. Stakeholders are any people or groups who will influence, be affected by, or have responsibility for potential management actions. It is critical to engage stakeholders as soon as possible because:
  • It helps build a common knowledge base among stakeholders about the project and the issues the project is addressing. 
  • It helps ensure that the full range of stakeholder concerns and interests are understood and accounted for.
  • Tool result "customers" such as natural resources management agencies and local governments are more likely to use tool results to inform their actions if they participated in generating the results.
  • Stakeholders that are affected by EBM decisions such as recreational fishermen are more likely to view tool results as legitimate and comply with EBM implementation if they participated in decision making processes.
  • When presenting to and working with stakeholders, tailor presentations and materials to different audiences.  For instance, natural resource managers, municipal officials, industry representatives, and concerned citizens may be interested in different levels of information about tools and tools results.
  • Make sure stakeholders understand that using tools is a way to evaluate the possible results of different decisions not the way decisions are made.
  • Figure out what role different stakeholders will play in tool use.  At a minimum, stakeholders should know what tools will be used, why they were chosen, the information that the tool provides, the level of uncertainty of tool results, and how tool results will be used in decision making processes. If some situations, it may be possible to host public workshops to demonstrate how the tools work and/or let stakeholder actually use the tools themselves.
  • Engage a good facilitator for the EBM process and tool use and set up clear rules of engagement for participants. Quality facilitation can make the difference between a successful process and a process that gets bogged down in partisan fighting.
  • Acknowledge and account for stakeholders' primary interests and mandates. Even when people or groups are committed to EBM, they will generally have other primary interests and mandates and may only be able to contribute to EBM when it is clear that they can meet these primary interests through or in addition to EBM. 

Running Tools

  • Perform sensitivity analyses (examinations of how much outputs change when inputs are altered) whenever possible. These analyses can help you understand your tool or model results and identify if there are crucial points where minor changes in input parameters have a major change in outputs.  Generating a range of tool results also helps demonstrate that tools show possibilities not answers.
  • "Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler." [Attributed to Albert Einstein].  Tool analyses and results can get very complex. Opt for simplicity whenever possible.
  • Do not use tools or tool results in a vacuum.  When using tools, seek extensive peer review of tool use methodologies to ensure credible results.  One way to facilitate this input is by forming a technical advisory committee for tool use.  Once tool results are generated, validate them with subject matter experts and people with extensive local knowledge to make sure they make sense. If they don't, figure out why. Data and tool analyses could be flawed, or data could be revealing new trends.
  • Evaluate your tool use process once your project is well-underway or completed.  The lessons that you have learned and publicly documented will help others learn from your challenges and successes.

Toolkits and Other Resources

This page currently provides information about other EBM tools resources, such as toolkits, surveys and best practice documents, often targeted at specific audiences.

General/Multi-Disciplinary | Stakeholder Engagement and Social Science Tools | Marine Ecosystem and Fisheries Tools | Marine Protected Area Tools | Climate Change Tools | Watershed and Land Use Planning Tools | Aquaculture and Freshwater Tools


Interactive Website On Cumulative Impact of Human Activities on Marine Ecosystems
The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis announces the launch of an interactive mapping website showing the cumulative impact of human activities on marine ecosystems around the world. The website allows users to view maps of cumulative human impacts, and each of the individual component datasets that were used to calculate cumulative impact. It also allows users to zoom in and out to any scale and location of interest, or type in a specific lat/long and zoom to that location. Using the cite, users can produce a summary report of the results for any location that includes explanations for why the location has the impact scores that it does, and download data for any given location. Learn more. 


Advancing Ecosystem-Based Management: A Decision Support Toolkit for Marine Managers

This toolkit provides guidance to managers and EBM practitioners for jointly addressing multiple objectives in biodiversity conservation, fishery production, and coastal hazard mitigation. It utilizes a number of EBM tools, including Ecoregional Assessments, MARXAN, Ecopath with Ecosim, and the Community Vulnerability and Assessment Tool. Learn more.


Learning from Case Studies to Advance Decision Support for Ecosystem-based Management: Meeting Summary, Advice & Needs
In October 2006, The Nature Conservancy hosted a group of 35 practitioners and managers to examine case studies where decision support tools have been used to jointly account for objectives in fisheries, coastal hazards, energy, and conservation. These case studies focused on tools, methods and approaches that could advance EBM by explicitly accounting for multiple objectives in a decision support framework. This document contains a summary of the meeting focused on the advice and needs for the advancement of tools to inform EBM. Learn more.

Oregon State University Davey Jones' Locker of Marine and Coastal GIS Resources including a Marine and Coastal GIS Software Page
This resource is offered as a service of the Davey Jones' Locker Lab to help seafloor mapping and marine/coastal GIS specialists, students, and interested parties worldwide find helpful information and data. Learn more.


Overview of Common Social Network Analysis Software Platforms by the Monitor Institute
The guide developed by the Monitor Institute provides an informal overview of available social network analysis tools. Learn more.

Integrated Approaches to Participatory Development (IAPAD) - Participatory Avenues
This website acts as focal point for sharing information and technical progress on community-based mapping and Public Participation GIS (PPGIS). The website provides ample documentation on Participatory 3D Modelling (P3DM), an efficient tool for merging indigenous technical knowledge and traditional spatial information. Learn more

PPGIS Open Forum on Participatory GIS and Technologies
PPgis.net is an the electronic forum on participatory use of geo-spatial information systems and technologies. It hosts four distinct discussion lists, the global list which is Anglophone, and its Latin American (Spanish), Lusophone (Brazilian) and Francophone chapters. These fora serve as global avenues for discussing issues, sharing experiences and good practices related to community mapping, Participatory GIS (PGIS), Public Participation GIS (PPGIS), and other geographic information technologies (GIT) used in participatory settings. Learn more.

Landscape Value and Special Place Mapping Website
Landscape value and special place mapping is a planning technique for sustainable land use and environmental protection, meaningful public participation, and the inclusion of multiple values in land use decision making. Landscape value and special place mapping is a type of public participation geographic information system or (PPGIS) used to support land use planning efforts at multiple scales ranging from local, to regional, to national scales. The Landscape Values Institute website provides examples of applications, methods, and tools for mapping and analyzing landscape values and special places and resources to help design and implement landscape value mapping for a variety of planning applications. Learn more.

Society for Conservation Biology Social Science Working Group's Catalog of Conservation Social Science Tools
This Catalog is a searchable database of social science tools designed for conservation practitioners, planners, students and researchers interested in the social dimensions of conservation. It is designed to facilitate more effective conservation initiatives based on a better understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. Each tool in the database has been categorized by discipline, methodological approach, social challenge, and conservation intervention. Learn more.

Mapping Human Activity in the Marine Environment: GIS Tools and Participatory Methods Workshop
In November-December 2005, NOAA hosted Mapping Human Activity in the Marine Environment: GIS Tools and Participatory Methods Workshop to develop general design criteria for a practical participatory method or a suite of methods to collect spatial data on human use patterns to inform local and regional MPA planning processes. Learn more.


Comprehensive Report on Modeling Approaches for Ecosystem Approaches to Fisheries
FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 477 "Models for an ecoystem approach to fisheries" by Eva E. Plaganyi of the University of Cape Town provides a comprehensive review of the methods available for assessing the impacts of interactions between species and fisheries and their implications for marine fisheries management. A brief description of the various modelling approaches currently in existence is provided, highlighting in particular features of these models which have general relevance to the field of the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF). The report concentrates on the currently available models representative of general types such as bionergetic models, predator-prey models and minimally realistic models. Short descriptions are given of model parameters, assumptions and data requirements. Some of the advantages, disadvantages and limitations of each of the approaches in addressing questions pertaining to EAF are discussed. The report concludes with some recommendations for moving forward in the development of multi-species and ecosystem models and for the prudent use of the currently available models as tools for provision of scientific information on fisheries in an ecosystem context. Learn more.

Summary of Canadian National Workshop on Modelling Tools for Ecosystem Approaches to Management
A national workshop on modeling tools in support of ecosystem approaches to management was held in Victoria, BC, in October 22-25, 2007. Its main objectives were to discuss and evaluate different ecosystem modeling approaches and to explore their suitability in the Canadian and DFO context. Scientists from all regions, fisheries managers and international experts participated in the workshop. The workshop included an overview of the current use of ecosystem models in DFO, a series of presentations by ecosystem modelling experts of methods in use globally and in-depth discussions during breakout groups and plenary sessions. This report summarizes the presentations and discussions, evaluates the questions that can be addressed by different ecosystem modelling approaches, highlights the essential role of ecosystem modeling for developing strategic advice and provides conclusions and recommendations to further develop ecosystem modelling and ecosystem approaches to management in DFO. It concludes with a summary of recommended actions, including suggestions of where efforts could be directed to provide strategic advice over the next one to two years. Learn more.

EUR-OCEANS Model Shopping Tool (MoST)
The Model Shopping Tool provides a searchable database of current ocean ecoystem models, including details on the processes, number and types of functional groups, and key variables they simulate. It also serves as a common platform for sharing knowledge within the modeling community and with experimental scientists. Learn more.

National Ecosystem Modeling Workshop (NEMoW) Report
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service held the National Ecosystem Modeling Workshop (NEMoW) from August 29-31, 2007. The objectives of this workshop were to: 1) Identify the main classes of ecosystem, bio-physical and multispecies models used, planned, or needed within NMFS, including the main objectives of these models, basic data requirements, when and how to use them relative to their objectives, and pros and cons of each; 2) Compare modeling approaches and methods across the NMFS science centers; 3) Evaluate various available modeling software packages and determine the feasibility of establishing a national ecosystem modeling toolbox; and 4) Recommend further steps (e.g. National Ecosystem Modeling Standards, Ecosystem Modeling Model Review Criteria, further engagement of the external modeling community) to advance ecosystem modeling within NMFS. Learn more.

GIS and Ocean Mapping in Support of Fisheries Research and Management Conference
In April 2006, MIT Sea Grant hosted the GIS and Ocean Mapping in Support of Fisheries Research and Management Conference to provide a forum to focus on the use of ocean mapping to support fisheries management and research. Learn more.

Workshop on Ecosystem-Based Decision Support Tools for Fisheries Management
In February 2005, NOAA hosted the Workshop on Ecosystem-Based Decision Support Tools for Fisheries Management to produce an integrated overview and needs assessment of science in support of ecosystem approaches to fisheries. Learn more.

Workshop on GIS Tools Supporting Ecosystem Approaches to Management
In September 2004, NOAA hosted the Workshop on GIS Tools Supporting Ecosystem Approaches to Management to explore the state-of-the-art and future requirements for GIS tools supporting ecosystem-based fishery management. Learn more.


NOAA National Marine Protected Areas Center Inventory of GIS-Based Decision-Support Tools for MPAs
The report focuses on GIS tools with the highest utility for MPA processes. Each tool summary includes a description of what the tool does, the data and software needed to run it, and contact information. In addition, several tools are highlighted in greater detail, providing examples of how they have been used in MPA zoning and monitoring activities. Learn more.


Climate Ready Estuaries Coastal Toolkit
The Climate Ready Estuaries Coastal Toolkit provides resources for estuarine and coastal programs that are interested in learning more about climate change impacts and adaptation. The Toolkit pages below provide information and links to websites, reports, and other resources related to Monitoring Climate Change, Coastal Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools, Where to Find Data, Adaptation Planning, Smart Growth in the Context of Climate Change and Sustainable Financing Options. Learn more.


PlaceMatters Community Design and Decision Making Tools Database
This database is a resource for communities (their professional planners, public agencies, and concerned citizens) to identify tools and processes for better community design and decision making. Learn more.

National Association of Counties (NACo) Issue Brief on Using GIS Tools to Link Land Use Decisions to Water Resource Protection
This issue brief is designed to help county officials learn more about the tools that model how different decisions influence the various systems in your community. These geographic information systems (GIS) based tools work by bringing together data and models to create real life scenarios depicting the benefits and consequences of each decision option. NACo, with support from the USEPA designed this project to provide information on the tools available to counties nationwide and the counties that are utilizing them to link land use decisions to water resource protection. Learn more.

U.S. EPA Inventory of Environmental Models
The Models Knowledge Base includes frequently used environmental models at the U.S. EPA. Users can search for models of interest by listing of all available models, conducting a keyword search, or by browsing for models by selecting environmental indicators. Learn more.

Environmental Law Institute Watershed Initiatives and Decision Support Tools
This is a supporting document for the National Symposium on Compensatory Mitigation and Watershed Approach, hosted by the Environmental Law Institute in 2004. The symposium was held in partnership with the Mitigation Action Plan (MAP) Workgroup, an interagency group that is charged with developing national guidance on making compensatory mitigation decisions in a watershed context. The symposium was designed to provide the MAP Workgroup with direction and input on watershed-based planning tools and resources that could be utilized for the purposes of making compensatory mitigation decisions under the Clean Water Act. Learn more.

Association for Biodiversity Information (NatureServe) Rapid Scan of Decision Support System Tools for Land-Use Related Decision Making
This 2001 report identifies the range and capabilities of existing tools for land-use related decision making and the current use of biodiversity information. Emphasis was placed on tools that have been used successfully in actual decision making processes, tools that are unique or have outstanding capabilities, or tools that use biodiversity information. Learn more.

EPA Projecting Land-Use Change: A Summary of Models for Assessing the Effects of Community Growth and Change on Land-Use Patterns
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed this selective summary of 22 leading landuse change models to provide clients for land-use change models, such as city and county planners, community groups, and environmental agencies, with better information on the features, strengths, and limitations of various model packages. EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) initiated the land-use change models summary in order to improve its ability to assess and mitigate future risk to ecological systems, human health, and quality of life. Learn more.

National Commission on Science for Sustainable Forestry Decision Support Systems for Forest Biodiversity: Evaluation of Current Systems and Future Needs
The primary objectives of this review are to help forest managers find decision support system (DSS) which meet their needs, and (2) help DSS designers and funders identify unmet DSS needs in the area of forest biodiversity. Thirty systems met the screening criteria from a pool of over 100 tools generated from previous reviews and interviews with DSS experts. These systems are reviewed against three themes: (1) classes of forest biodiversity indicators used, (2) major forest threats and influences addressed, and (3) abilities to assist with complex political decisions. Learn more.

USFS Decision Support Systems for Ecosystem Management: An Evaluation of Existing Systems
This report provides an evaluation of 24 computer-aided systems capable of supporting management decision-making in forest ecosystems. It provides comparative information on the scope of each system, spatial capabilities, computational methods, development status, input and output requirements, user support availability, and system performance. This evaluation is intended to aid potential users of decision support systems in determining which system most closely fulfills their needs, and to highlight opportunities for future DSS development. Learn more.


GISFish Website
GISFish, created and managed by the FAO Aquaculture Management and Conservation Service, is a "one stop" website to provide information on and interact with professions in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing and Mapping as applied to Aquaculture and Inland fisheries. Learn more.

ECASA Ecosystem Approach to Sustainable Aquaculture Toolbox
The ECASA project has developed a toolbox for ecosystem approaches to sustainable aquaculture. The toolbox contains tools to aid owners and operators of fin-fish and shell-fish farms in selecting farm sites, and operating farms, so as to minimize environmental impact and ensure the sustainability of sites and water bodies for aquaculture. Learn more.

Geospatial Resources for Freshwater Conservation Website
The Geospatial Resources for Freshwater Conservation website, created and managed by the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, is geared toward people interested in using geospatial tools for freshwater conservation applications. It provides links to the tools necessary to plan, acquire, process, and analyze geospatial data for freshwater applications, as well as guides, tutorials, and case studies. Learn more.

About Ecosystem-Based Management

Some of the key principles of Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) are:

  • Integration of ecological, social, and economic goals and recognition of humans as key components of the ecosystem.
  • Consideration of ecological- not just political- boundaries.
  • Addressing the complexity of natural processes and social systems and using an adaptive management approach in the face of resulting uncertainties.
  • Engaging multiple stakeholders in a collaborative process to define problems and find solutions.
  • Incorporating understanding of ecosystem processes and how ecosystems respond to environmental perturbations.
  • Concern with the ecological integrity of coastal-marine systems and the sustainability of both human and ecological systems.

For additional information about EBM, see the COMPASS Consensus Statement on EBM.