This project seeks to improve the representation of socio-economic considerations in social-ecological models of marine ecosystems, using the West Hawai’i Integrated Ecosystem Assessment as a case study. NOAA’s Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) Program was developed in recognition of the growth of Ecosystem-Based Management (EBM) at the center of a new era of ocean stewardship. The IEA Program states that the primary aim of an EBM should be to sustainably improve human well-being, with the process reflecting societal values, goals, and desires by focusing on the production of and tradeoffs among ecosystem services.

​​Nature-based solutions use ecosystem-based approaches to improve human well-being and biodiversity benefits

The 2016 National IEA meeting identified a strong need to better incorporate human dimension concepts, indicators, and datasets into IEAs (NOAA, 2016). In addition, the group recognized that while the ecosystem services are inherent in many of the IEAs, much work is needed to operationalize both ecosystem services and their relationship with other social indicators, as well as dynamics between the social and ecological systems. Concepts related to human well-being also are largely absent from IEA conceptual models, with the notable exception of the California Current IEA, which has explored integrating one element of human well-being, sense of place (Harvey, et al., in press).

While a growing body of literature has developed around social-ecological systems (SES) and how to operationalize human well-being for ecosystem assessment and management (Breslow et al 2016), Stojanovic et al. (2016) found that the way these systems are characterized often focuses on quantitative methodologies and downplays crucial social science concepts that are better assessed with more interpretive methods. Many ecosystem services and human well-being components represent such concepts that are more intangible and not as easily quantifiable, requiring different social scientific tools and methods to build understanding of human dimensions, or social components, in the SES.

The West Hawai’i IEA has taken the first step in creating conceptual ecosystem models based on a Driver-Pressure-State-Impact-Response (DPSIR) framework. This approach has identified key foundational biophysical elements, but still largely represents the human component as threats while social indicators focus primarily on only types and levels of pressure by human activities expressed as drivers and stressors (Gove et al., 2016). Ecosystem services (i.e., provisioning, cultural, regulating, or supporting benefits to humans provided by the ecosystem) have not yet been explicitly operationalized, although cultural ecosystem services were identified as some of the most important elements of the model. In addition, human well-being has not yet been incorporated. These elements are crucial in a robust SES, as societal benefits (economic, social and cultural) of ecosystem services and ways management could contribute to their enhancement (or degradation) are critical for marine resource management and conservation to be successful and sustainable. At the same time, expanding the IEA focus to explicitly identify positive human impacts allows for management strategies and activities that encourage stakeholders to engage in bettering the state of biophysical resources (e.g., through stewardship, co-management, community-based monitoring, etc) while improving human well-being aspects that are relevant to governance, social cohesion, and equity, which in turn can play an important role on SES sustainability.

Specific project objectives are to:

1. Develop a conceptual framework that strengthens the social component of the SES and recommendations for its operationalization;

2. Identify social indicators that focus on human well-being domains or social benefits/outcomes that are relevant to West Hawai’i IEA and appropriate social scientific methods for data collection;

3. Validate the framework through relevant stakeholders and other IEA teams to enhance the West Hawai’i IEA management strategies/activities;

4. Apply learnings to enhance integration of less tangible social constructs into other IEAs/SES models.


Breslow, S. et al. 2016. Conceptualizing and operationalizing human wellbeing for assessment and management. Environmental Science & Policy 66: 250-259.

Gove J.M., J.J. Polovina, W.J. Walsh, A. Heenan, I.D. Williams, L.M. Wedding, R.J. Ingram, J. Lecky, K.L.L. Oleson, H. Walecka, S.F. Heron, C.S. Couch, E.A. Howell. 2016.  West Hawai’i integrated ecosystem assessment: ecosystem trends and status report.  Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, PIFSC Special Publication, SP-16-004, 46 p. doi:10.7289/V5/SP-PIFSC-16-004.

Harvey, C.J., J.C.P. Reum, M.R. Poe, G.D. Williams, S.J. Kim. In Prep. Using conceptual models and qualitative network models to advance integrative assessments of marine ecosystems.

Stojanovic, T., H.M. McNae, P. Tett, T.W. Potts, J. Reis, H.D. Smith, I. Dillingham. 2016. The “social” aspect of social-ecological systems: a critique of analytical frameworks and findings from a multisite study of coastal sustainability. Ecology and Society 21 (3):15.