It has long been recognised that there are strong interactions and feedbacks between climate, upper ocean biogeochemistry and marine food webs, and also that food web structure and phytoplankton community distribution are important determinants of variability in carbon production and export from the euphotic zone. Numerical models provide a vital tool to explore these interactions, given their capability to investigate multiple connected components of the system and the sensitivity to multiple drivers, including potential future conditions. A major driver for ecosystem model development is the demand for quantitative tools to support ecosystem-based management initiatives. The purpose of this paper is to review approaches to the modelling of marine ecosystems with a focus on the North Atlantic Ocean and its adjacent shelf seas, and to highlight the challenges they face and suggest ways forward. We consider the state of the art in simulating oceans and shelf sea physics, planktonic and higher trophic level ecosystems, and look towards building an integrative approach with these existing tools. We note how the different approaches have evolved historically and that many of the previous obstacles to harmonisation may no longer be present. We illustrate this with examples from the on-going and planned modelling effort in the Integrative Modelling Work Package of the EURO-BASIN programme. (C) 2014 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.