Ecologically sustainable economic development (ESED) is considered to be a priority axis for policies designed for the preservation of ecosystems. In this context, the ESED concept has been operationally defined through several distinct approaches. Nevertheless, no consensus has been reached between and among approaches as to an operational interpretation and practical application of ESED. The present paper examines and evaluates the operational appeal of certain ESED approaches within the current policy framework regarding aquatic ecosystems. To this purpose, the paper investigates the relationship between representative approaches to ESED and the current policies for aquatic ecosystems in the European Union and the United States of America. These relatively mature policies offer operational grounds on which the operational dimensions of ESED approaches may be evaluated. Analysis focuses on the crucial question of to what extent the current major policies for aquatic ecosystems reflect the rationale and conditions of the prevailing ESED scientific approaches. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.