Re-Energizing the Ecosystem Approach in the 21st Century

In 2022, the 50th anniversaries of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act were celebrated. This landmark Agreement and law, as well as many programs implemented across the Great Lakes region, are grounded in sound principles giving effect to ecosystem-based management. Indeed, the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement recognizes the fundamental importance of using an ecosystem approach to restoring and maintaining the health of the Great Lakes. Healthy lakes, in turn, are crucial to healthy economies and communities. 

Over the past 50 years, we have witnessed many successes such as reducing municipal and industrial point source pollution, slowing the introductions of invasive species, and delisting several Great Lakes pollution hotspots called Areas of Concern. However, many challenges remain, like addressing nonpoint source pollution and climate change. Furthermore, so many things in the world have changed that have created new challenges and opportunities for improving our efforts to protect and restore this globally significant freshwater ecosystem.  

There have been incredible advancements in science and technology that allow us to collect and analyze more data, create more sophisticated models, and more accurately forecast changes in complex ecosystems. There have been fundamental changes in how people get their information and whom they trust to receive it from, coupled with seemingly increased sociopolitical polarization. There has been an increased interest in understanding the social, cultural, and economic value of the Great Lakes and how their health is intimately tied to the lives and livelihoods of the people that live and visit here. Coastal ecosystems in the region also represent inequity in terms of access to and benefits from the Great Lakes, the ecosystem services they provide, and the environmental and conservation efforts taken to protect and restore them. As such there is increased appreciation and recognition for success stories, including growing awareness of Indigenous and local communities in sustainable stewardship practices.

Given these 50 years of experience, along with the existing and projected changes, regional experts, scientists, and managers came together to take stock of what has been learned from historical applications of ecosystem approaches with a focus on improving future ecosystem based management efforts of the Great Lakes. An ecosystem approach brings stakeholders together to identify measurable ecosystem goals, co-produce knowledge, co-innovate solutions, and practice adaptive management – assess, set priorities, and take action in an iterative fashion for continuous improvement – until ecosystem goals are met. 

On the 50th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and U.S. Clean Water Act in 2022, an international conference and synthesis workshop on “The Ecosystem Approach in the 21st Century: Guiding Science and Management” was held at the University of Windsor. This event included a one-day hybrid conference and a two-day workshop made up of seven synthesis working groups focusing on different aspects of the ecosystem approach, including the history and origin of the ecosystem approach, blue economy, technological advances, Indigenous knowledge systems, science-policy solutions, education, and knowledge mobilization, and human dimensions. Each of these working groups produced recommendations on how boundary organizations, actors, and teams can better support and accelerate more strategic, holistic, and partnership-driven efforts, and each prepared a paper that will be published in a special issue of Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management. 

The project is now taking these recommendations on the road to get stakeholder feedback from 15 discussion groups throughout the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. The intent of these discussions is to connect with ecosystem approach practitioners across a range of contexts to help identify and provide feedback on recommendations to improve future efforts and to uncover attributes of successful examples and lessons learned from challenges. This knowledge will be critical in shaping policy recommendations and collaborations. At the completion of the project in the spring of 2024, a summary report of all findings and recommendations will be prepared for broad distribution throughout the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. A primary goal of this project is to help re-energize use of an ecosystem approach in the 21st century as part of our collective efforts to achieve healthy and sustainable Great Lakes, economies, and communities.

The Council of the Great Lakes Region will be hosting a 1-hour webinar on the Ecosystem Approach on Thursday, June 15th, 2023 at 1pm ET.  Audience engagement through Q&A and feedback will be welcomed. To learn more and register for this webinar, please click HERE

The image used in this post is from Mariah Alexander, Healthy Headwaters Lab, and is used here with permission. 

About the Project

To learn more about this ecosystem approach project, visit If you have questions, please contact the ecosystem approach team at

About the Authors

Fani Tsaroucha, Project and Research Associate, Healthy Headwaters Lab, University of Windsor, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research
John Hartig, Visiting Scholar, Healthy Headwaters Lab, University of Windsor, Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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