Ecosystems are complex and dynamic natural units that produce goods and services beyond those of benefit to fisheries. Because fisheries have a direct impact on the ecosystem, which is also impacted by other human activities, they need to be managed in an ecosystem context. The meaning of the terms 'ecosystem management', 'ecosystem based management', 'ecosystem approach to fisheries'(EAF), etc., are still not universally defined and progressively evolving. The justification of EAF is evident in the characteristics of an exploited ecosystem and the impacts resulting from fisheries and other activities. The rich set of international agreements of relevance to EAF contains a large number of principles and conceptual objectives. Both provide a fundamental guidance and a significant challenge for the implementation of EAF. The available international instruments also provide the institutional foundations for EAF. The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries is particularly important in this respect and contains provisions for practically all aspects of the approach. One major difficulty in defining EAF lies precisely in turning the available concepts and principles into operational objectives from which an EAF management plan would more easily be developed. The paper discusses these together with the types of action needed to achieve them. Experience in EAF implementation is still limited but some issues are already apparent, e.g. in added complexity, insufficient capacity, slow implementation, need for a pragmatic approach, etc. It is argued, in conclusion, that the future of EAF and fisheries depends on the way in which the two fundamental concepts of fisheries management and ecosystem management, and their respective stakeholders, will join efforts or collide.