Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Marine Affairs

First Advisor

Robert H. Thompson


Ecosystem‐based management (EBM) is an integrated, collaborative resource management strategy that is widely touted as the preferred approach to coastal and environmental management. Yet coastal management decisions largely occur through a fragmented system of governance, whereby coastal management practitioners act somewhat autonomously to make land‐ and water‐use decisions that can have tremendous impacts on entire ecosystems. There are relatively few examples of coastal ecosystem‐based management in practice; one possible reason is that a truly EBM approach, considering both the social and ecological aspects of an ecosystem, places extreme demands on coastal management practitioners. To effectively develop coastal EBM plans, practitioners themselves must have a strong understanding of EBM and its application to the coastal ecosystem they are managing. Further, practitioners must collaborate across both jurisdictions and disciplines in order to develop coastal EBM plans and make decisions from an ecosystem perspective.

This study analyzes the capacity of coastal management practitioners to develop coastal ecosystem‐based management plans. Specifically, it investigates three key research questions: 1.) What are the characteristics of practitioners’ mental models of the coastal ecosystems for which they are planning?, 2.) How did practitioners collaborate with others to develop the coastal EBM plan?, and 3.) What is the relationship between practitioners’ mental models and practitioners’ social networks? These questions were applied to two case studies, the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan in Rhode Island, and the Great South Bay Ecosystem‐Based Management Plan in Long Island, New York, which were selected because anecdotal evidence suggested they might be considered best‐case scenarios for coastal ecosystem‐based management planning.

Practitioners who were participated in these collaborative EBM planning efforts were the focus of this study. Mental models analytical methods were used to investigate how practitioners conceptualize coastal ecosystems, and social network analysis methods were used to investigate how practitioners collaborated with others to develop these plans. A series of statistical correlation tests were then performed on the results of these two analyses to determine whether practitioners with comprehensive, balanced mental models collaborated with many other practitioners of different affiliations and areas of expertise. Results show significant differences between the two cases as well as a statistically significant correlation between the comprehensiveness of practitioners’ mental models and the extent of a practitioner’s influence within a network. Results point to a series of recommendations for improving collaborative EBM planning efforts, as well as to additional research needs in mental models and collaboration.