The Ecosystem Approach: Implications for the North

by Robert F. Keith

The circumpolar North, like much of the rest of the globe, has been subject to a succession of environmental crises. The "pristine" Arctic is not so pristine(1). Ozone thinning and the long-range transport of industrial contaminants by both air and water systems are two of the most recent threats to northern peoples and the ecosystems on which they depend. The cumulative effects of hydro-electric development on riverine and marine ecosystems, the fallout of radionuclides on the tundra, the impacts of petroleum and mineral wastes, and the endangering of species also are important indicators that circumpolar ecosystems are threatened.

More than species and populations are at risk: entire ecosystems are affected(2). The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy(3), initiated by Finland in 1991 and endorsed by the other seven arctic nations including Canada, is recognition not only of the significance and urgency of these issues but also of their ecosystemic nature and, thus, of the need to take an ecosystem approach to their resolution.

What is an "ecosystem approach" and what is its significance to how society conducts its affairs and to the future of the North(4)? The ecosystem approach considers a whole system, rather than its individual parts and their connections. It applies systems perspectives to gain insights into the nature of ecosystems and the ways they respond to the stresses imposed by human activities. From an aboriginal perspective, "traditional ecological knowledge" is a way of knowing and thinking about ecosystems. It is not just about wildlife, but about food chains and wildlife habitat, including land, waters, ice and snow. And because people are a part of the environment, human activities are a part of traditional ecological knowledge. From a scientific perspective, researchers analyze ecosystems by studying population biology, food chains, trophic levels, landscape ecology, and stress-response models. It is becoming apparent that all ways of thinking about ecosystems are helpful in developing an ecosystem approach. No one way is sufficient.

Ecosystems are complex; they are systems within systems or hierarchies of systems. Contaminants may be seen as part of the metabolic systems of a beluga whale; the whale, as part of a population inhabiting a marine environment; the population of whales, as part of a community that is seen as a system of food chains in which the sun' s incoming energy drives the whole system. All the subsystems are connected and any of them may affect the others. Some of these systems exist over large areas and for considerable periods of time.

Scientists think of ecosystems as being "driven" by the need to use (or, as scientists say, dissipate) large amounts of energy from the sun. The ecosystem' s ability to use incoming energy increases with the complexity of its food webs. Biodiversity contributes to ecosystem complexity. In using incoming energy, an ecosystem may change. Such changesmight include new life forms, thus enhancing biodiversity.

But the sun's energy is not the only force acting upon an ecosystem; external stresses such as pollution, declines in species populations, and natural calamities may challenge the integrity of an ecosystem. The ability of an ecosystem to manage incoming energy and other external forces that threaten its integrity is referred to as its capacity for selforganization. It is this feature of ecosystems that scientists now believe is particularly crucial for ecosystem sustainability.

An ecosystem may adapt to stress in several ways. It has been said that ecosystem adaptation consists of a temporary change followed by a return to the previous condition; however, recent thinking suggests a much more varied set of possibilities. Kay identifies five types of ecosystem response to stress:

  1. The system can continue to operate as before, even though its operations may be initially and temporarily unsettled.

  2. The system can operate at a different level using the same structures it originally had (for example, a reduction or increase in species numbers).

  3. Some new structures can emerge in the system that replace or augment existing structures (for example, new species or paths in the food web).

  4. A new ecosystem made up of quite different structures can emerge.

  5. The ecosystem may collapse and no regeneration occurs(5).

It is clear that a collapsed system is not "healthy," but it is equally clear that the original condition is not the only healthy state. Adaptations can be just as "healthy." Ecosystems possessing integrity should be able to

Its ability to self-organize is the system' s means of adapting to stresses to "preserve" itself, albeit at times in a new form. The complexity of ecosystems makes it impossible to predict precisely how the self-organization and regenerative processes will occur. The challenge of ecosystem management is to protect or restore the capacity to self-organize and therefore maintain or regain integrity. The objective of maintaining "ecosystem integrity" should be the overall purpose guiding human relations with the environment.

Biological and physical information are keys to the success of self-organizing processes in an ecosystem. Living systems that have evolved successfully have learned what constraints operate on them in the wider ecosystem and how to cope with those constraints. At the levels of cells to species, the genes inform the self-organization process which pathways and changes are likely to be successful. At the level of ecosystems biodiversity supplies the information that guides the processes of adaptation and regeneration. Thus, biodiversity acts as the "library" for ecosystem regeneration(6).

Meteorological equipment at Alert, Northwest Territories.

Implications for Managing Ecosystems

The continuing pressures of industrial and resource development inevitably mean more stress on arctic ecosystems. Those with responsibility for ensuring the sustainability of the environment and people that depend on it must begin to plan and manage from an ecosystem perspective. What then are some of the implications of the ecosystem approach for planning and management?

Supporting Self-Organization Processes

Ecosystem dynamics suggest that human activities must protect and enhance the self-organizing capacity of ecosystems. The focus is not just on the ecosystem, but rather on the relationships between it and human uses of it. The challenge of ecosystem research is to understand better the processes of self-organization. The challenge of management is to attune human activities to these processes to protect the integrity of the ecosystems. Research and resource management should be directed toward managing change to support, rather than impair, self-organizing capacities. From a management perspective, it is important to protect the self-organizing capability of ecosystems, and one strategy to achieve this is to protect biodiversity.

The diversity of species is the "information bank" an ecosystem needs to function in normal conditions and to regenerate when stressed significantly. The reduction or loss of a species does not necessarily mean that an ecosystem will not continue to function in a healthy way. Some species "parallel" one another and when one diminishes others assume that part of the function previously carried by the diminished specles.

Understanding Whole Systems

Much of contemporary science is based on selected elements within ecosystems. In the past, both scientists and resource managers have tended to be "locked in" to specialized pursuits of knowledge rather than the study of whole ecosystems. The focus of science has been to reduce complexity to achieve observational and experimental control, an approach that seems counterintuitive to much of what we are beginning to understand about ecosystems. Although it is important, even necessary, that we gain more insight into the nature of cells, species, communities, and the like, these insights alone will not provide an understanding of complex ecosystems. There is a distinct need for us to think in terms of systems. Moreover, it is important to consider the broader context of whatever system we are observing and the influence of that context. Our analysis must be expansive enough to account both for the significant external forces acting on the system we examine and for the system itself.

No Single Expertise

For some time, ecologists have acknowledged that no single theory, discipline, or profession can describe the complexities of ecosystems. Yet, the institutional expression of both science and management too often demonstrates narrow focus and expertise. The ecosystem approach requires not only expertise in many categories but also synthesis of the categories. The sharing and exchange of many kinds of information is a basic necessity if we are to understand better the nature of ecosystems. As well, it is necessary that we integrate our shared knowledge into policy and practice.

Making Use of All Available Knowledge

The scientific knowledge we have accumulated so far is not nearly adequate for the challenges of the ecosystem approach. Hypotheses—more than solid information characterize cur rent ecosystem science. We are now beginning to understand, particularly in the North, that there are various ways of knowing and various modes of reasoning. The growing literature on aboriginal knowledge of ecosystems indicates a potentially significant contribution to our overall understanding of ecosystem dynamics, societal impacts, and limits to human activity. Therefore, many observers and analysts can contribute to understanding and managing ecosystems. There is no "position of privilege"—no single point of view or methodology that prevails.

Precautionary Principle

Some still argue that limits to ecosystem uses are only another challenge in the long history of technological challenges to human ingenuity. More frequently now the view is that limits to ecosystem uses are real but are imprecisely known, and therefore our approach to resource use should be cautious. Faced with the reality that we cannot predict how ecosystems will evolve, especially when seriously stressed, it is argued that we should err on the side of caution; i.e., not act in a way that we suspect might impair their integrity and self-organizing capabilities. We should avoid actions that could endanger the regenerative processes of ecosystems.

Reverse Onus of Proof

Present-day logic requires opponents of development to prove that there will be unacceptable impacts from such development. Some now argue that the principle should be one of "reverse onus of proof," requiring proponents of certain actions to prove that their activities will not impair the health or the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate.

Ecosystem Approaches in the North:
Cumulative Effects Assessment

A current study of the cumulative effects of human activity in the Hudson Bay and James Bay regions is assessing ecosystem changes from both scientific and traditional ecological knowledge perspectives7. The review of the scientific information provides a basis for suggesting a number of hypotheses about long-term, cumulative, and synergistic effects. The absence of predictable conclusions is recognition of the considerable complexity and limited scientific knowledge of the region's ecosystems. Most of the conclusions are guesses or hunches about how the systems are responding to a variety of stresses. Signs of both stress and change have been found, yet there is little evidence that actions to relieve the stresses of hydro-electric developments and the long-range transport of contaminants into the region are being Dursued. Although the principles of caution and reverse onus of proof do not underpin present policy or practice, there has been some progress in the conduct of environmental impact assessments. The review guidelines for formal assessments of hydro-electric projects in both Quebec and Manitoba made significant requests of the proponents for assessment of cumulative effects and justification of the claim that the proposed developments were consistent with the principles of sustainable development. Such requests contribute, in a small way, to ecosystem perspectives.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge:
The Hudson Bay Programme

The study of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) also is a contribution to ecosystem thinking. Whereas much of the scientific data for the region has been gathered in selected sites, in relatively brief periods of time, and seldom over an extended period, the TEK study relies on the observation and knowledge of Inuit and Cree hunters, trappers, and elders whose experience is added to knowledge accumulated from preceding generations. Thus, their data are based on multiple observers, over extended periods of time, and on areas and territories they know intimately.

Participants in the study came from more than twenty communities around Hudson and James bays. Their knowledge has contributed to a detailed picture of ecological changes in the bays and some of the major rivers flowing into them. Preliminary findings from the TEK study appear to both confirm and refute what some scientists have found. Particularly interesting is the native view that a third population of beluga whales resides year-round in southern Hudson Bay and James Bay. The scientific evidence suggests that there are only two populations and that they migrate out of the bays in winter. If validated, the TEK evidence will have important regulatory and management implications. At present, federal fishery of ficials are basing their calls for restricted harvests on declining populations. A new population could change their policy. Moreover, Inuit hunters who have observed belugas in places where they have seldom gathered believe they are seeking sanctuary in areas away from noise and disturbance. Thus populations may not be declining; they may be only altering their habitat.

These findings demonstrate the value of acknowledging and accepting different ways of knowing. Through shared management, or "co-management," it is possible to enrich and expand the ecosystem knowledge base. Each perspective has valid information to bring to bear on the issues; neither alone is capable of fully accounting for ecosystem dynamics.

The Ecosystem Approach and Environmental Monitoring

Canada does not have a comprehensive environmental monitoring programme for arctic ecosystems. The Arctic Environmental Strategy outlined monitoring initiatives for airborne contaminants and water quality, but these are a limited response to urgent issues, rather than a system designed to provide information on attributes of ecosystems as a whole. The persuasive argument for ecosystems suggests that we must begin to devise ways of observing and of recording and exchanging information on critical indicators of ecosystem integrity. More specifically, sets of indices on ecosystem health, the capacity of systems to cope with stresses, and the selforganizing properties of ecosystems should be the principle focus of research and of monitoring methods. Monitoring initiatives should combine both scientific evidence and traditional ecological knowledge.

The ecosystem approach also calls for explicit recognition of the need to manage human activities within the context of ecosystem sustainability; human activities, as much as ecosystems, require monitoring. To this end it is essential that public policy, planning, management, and evaluation processes become linked with participatory processes so that intent is known before action and is subject to assessment against criteria for ecosvstem integrity and societal sustainability.

Robert F. Keith is an Associate Professor, Department of Environment and Resources Studies, University of Waterloo. He wishes to acknowledge professors George R. Francis and James J. Kay of the same department for their advice and comments on draft versions of this article.


1. Twitchell, K., 1991. "The Not-So-Pristine Arctic," Canadian Geographic Feb/Mar, 52-60.

2. Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1994. Northern Perspectives 21 (4): 28.

3. Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, 1991. "Declaration on the Protection of the Arctic Environment" signed at Rovaniemi, Finland, 14 June 1991.

4. For further discussion on ecosystem approaches see, Allen, T.F.H., B.L. Bandurski, and A.W. King, 1993. "The Ecosystem Approach: Theory and Ecosystem Integrity," Report to the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board; Allen, T.F.H., and T.W. Hoekstra, 1992. Toward a Unified Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press; Edwards, C.J., and H.A. Regier (eds.), "An Ecosystem Approach to the Integrity of the Great Lakes in Turbulent Times." Proceedings of a workshop supported by the Great Lakes Fishenes Commission and the Science Advisory Board of the International Joint Commission. Great Lakes Fishery Commission Special Publication; Hollings, C.S., 1986. "The Resilience of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Local Surpnse and Global Change," in Clark, W.M., and R. E. Munn (eds.), Sustainable Development in the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press.

5. Kay, J.J., 1993. "On the Nature of Ecological Integrity: Some Closing Comments," in Woodley, S., J.J. Kay, and G. Francis, Ecological Integrity and the Management of Ecosystems. St. Lucine Press.

6. Kay, J.J., and E. Schneider, 1994. "The Challenge of the Ecosystem Approach," Alternstives 20 (3): 1-5.

7. The Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, the Environmental Committee of the Community of Sanikiluaq, NWT, and the Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science are collaborating on a study of cumulative effects and sustainable development in the Hudson Bay and James Bay region, using both traditional ecological knowledge and scientific information,

"In This Issue..."