Estuaries are complex, dynamic ecosystems that play a critical role in supporting crucial economic industries, such as commercial fishing and tourism, and providing the resources necessary to sustain coastal communities. A range of anthropogenic environmental stressors are threatening the health of estuaries throughout the world. Traditional top-down single resource focused environmental regulatory approaches have proved inadequate to protect and restore estuarine systems. In recent years, scientific and legal academics, as well as policymakers, have called for more holistic participatory approaches to addressing environmental challenges. Drawing on the literature on ecosystem management, integrated water resources management, collaborative governance, and adaptive management, we offer a new approach, which we refer to as Integrated Estuary Governance. Our proposal incorporates elements of other approaches that have been demonstrated to be essential in managing natural systems in general and that have particular applicability to estuarine systems.
Through in-depth case studies, we examine existing estuary programs established pursuant to the Clean Water Act’s National Estuary Program through the lens of Integrated Estuary Governance. This evaluation reveals a strong link between successful estuary management and the employment of a robust Integrated Estuary Governance approach. Extrapolation of this approach to other estuary management programs, and to other ecosystem management programs in general, in a deliberative and methodical fashion may result in greater success in protecting, managing, and restoring important ecological resources while, at the same time, ensuring that community social and economic values are protected.