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The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s13280-015-0655-7) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Ecosystem-based management (EBM) has become a key instrument of contemporary environmental policy and practice. Given the increasingly important role of EBM, there is an urgent need for improved analytical approaches to assess if and to what extent EBM has been accomplished in any given case. Drawing on the vast literature on EBM, we identify five key ecosystem aspects for assessment. By linking these aspects to four phases of management, we develop an interdisciplinary, analytical framework that enables a high-resolution and systematic assessment of the degree of specificity and integration of ecosystem aspects in an EBM. We then apply the framework to evaluate five coastal EBM initiatives in Sweden, four on the Baltic coast and one on the west coast. Our results demonstrate our framework’s usefulness for in-depth and continuous assessments of processes aiming for EBM, and also provide an empirical basis for inferences about the key challenges for successful EBM.