Collaborations

Meeting the Marine Biodiversity Challenge

An introduction

The following information presents the outcomes of the collaboration of a panel of marine biodiversity assessment experts to discuss key marine biodiversity challenges in addressing development impacts. The discussion was presented at the ‘Meeting the Marine Biodiversity Challenge’ session at the IAIA19 conference in Brisbane. The session was formed by Bluedot Associates to promote thinking towards creating better outcomes for marine biodiversity and the people connected to it.

Addressing marine biodiversity impacts is often considered to be a challenge. Issues relate to complexity, but also to accepted processes and their interpretation. Good outcomes are also often constrained by accepted paradigms. The purpose of the session was to identify challenges, demonstrate where solutions can be found, and importantly, act as a guide to create better outcomes. We are sharing this information to initiate broader thinking and also to support the identification of solutions for challenges that advisors and industry face.

An outcome of the session was to identify that there are issues and gaps that can undermine the effective protection of marine biodiversity, but also for managing business risks. The reasons for this were explored. A key underlying limiter related to uncertainty related to baseline, risks and how to mitigate them. Existing paradigms were identified as potentially providing a limit to forming better outcomes, whether that be the use of standard decision-making processes, perceptions, focusing on developing certainty etc. There was also consideration to the importance of timely decision-making and the relationship to addressing certainty, task-orientated delivery, project funding etc. The question was asked as to whether we should continue to rely on processes that lead to sub-optimal outcomes, and if not, what are the alternatives. We also explored how we can integrate value-led approaches that create better outcomes – building better legacies for biodiversity, local people and businesses. The main outcomes of the discussion are presented here.

With contributions from:

 

ChallengeTimely decision-making
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Applying the mitigation hierarchy
Issue AddressedAddressing marine biodiversity issues as early as possible

Effective project screening is essential to address and manage impacts on coastal and marine biodiversity at an early stage. The lack of strategic planning and ineffective screening can hinder the implementation of the best approaches to protect coastal and marine biodiversity, and they also increase project risks during project execution (e.g. for permitting, funding, time and cost). This means that the potential to avoid impacts on marine biodiversity features is reduced.

In many instances, projects go ahead without fully understanding values and risks; and decisions that could avoid or reduce adverse effects on biodiversity are postponed until further information is collected, which may relate to a desire to make decisions based on certainty or due to a focus on immediate tasks. Often, projects are progressed without strategic planning and are implemented with a short term stepped approach that follows standard project management delivery, accepted processes for environmental engagement and financing milestones. This includes how businesses allocate their funds to deliver projects, reliance on ESIA studies and/or when external finances are made available. It may also be due to a lack of available time to gain better understanding of risks and consequences to biodiversity values of project actions before projects are committed to. This can reduce the opportunity to adopt early steps in the Mitigation Hierarchy, in particular, avoidance measures.

Often, it is best for business and biodiversity to consider and deliver upon biodiversity management/action plans to address biodiversity risks as early as possible. Screening approaches usually consider risk, but actions to manage these risks across the Mitigation Hierarchy may not be considered in detail at an early project stage. This can be due to a need to wait until more project information is available, but often impacts can be predicted early on in a project cycle, and therefore, likely mitigation and monitoring measures can be defined across the hierarchy. Not understanding the potential biodiversity management/action plan measures that may be required at an early stage may mean that developers may not fully understand the consequence of decisions being made. Also, often there is limited understanding of uncertainties associated with the effectiveness of mitigation measures. This increases project risks and also the potential for greater impacts on biodiversity. It also means that there is also a reliance on the delivery of mitigation that is attached to accepted project steps and this can hinder the effective integration of actions when they may be most effective and lead to an overreliance on later mitigation steps (minimise, restoration and offset). However, the success of the implementation of restoration and offset approaches can be low and can be undermined by the uncertainties in the understanding of values and the inter-linkages that exist between habitats and species, the physical environment, ecosystem services and threats that exist at a seascape level. A lack of baseline information and complexities also means that some mitigation options, such as offsets are often difficult to measure, and therefore, to accurately determine success. For instance, the delivery of like-for-like restoration offsetting can be very challenging in the marine environment due to the lack of understanding of baseline conditions, including biophysical inter-connectedness, dynamic changes and the time frames that determine presence, population structures. Subsequently, goals of No Net Loss or a Net Gain in biodiversity become much harder to achieve.
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ChallengeData paucity and uncertainty
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment
Applying the mitigation hierarchy
Issue Addressedlack of data and certainty that limits the understanding of biodiversity values, risks and mitigation success

In many places there is a lack of information available for understanding coastal and marine biodiversity baselines to inform strategic assessment and screening studies. This also provides uncertainty with respect to defining some risks and consequence to biodiversity values of project actions; and also, for the appropriateness of mitigation strategies and the understanding of the success of some measures.

In particular, data gaps are widespread in many developing countries where large-scale development is undertaken and planned; and often in these areas where there is little information there is potential for features of high biodiversity value to be present. Uncertainty and lack of data can undermine the understanding of baseline conditions, including the importance of biodiversity in a project’s Area of Influence, but also in the broader interconnected seascape. This can mean that projects proceed without fully knowing the potential risks they may pose for coastal and marine biodiversity.

Inherent uncertainties that exist may mean that the nature and significance of project impacts are not fully understood. Monitoring should seek to understand change in biodiversity attributes in time and/or space, identifying causes and, if deleterious, identifying interventions for implementation and then checking on effectiveness. However, sometimes, there is a reliance on some monitoring approaches that provide more data but may not address some of the underlying uncertainties that exist due to complexities and limitations that exist. In these circumstances, monitoring can add limited value. Often, these uncertainties are not openly acknowledged or determined, and this may lead to an overreliance on mitigation and monitoring that may not be appropriately focused, or worse, ineffective approaches. These uncertainties may lead to inaccurate conclusions being formed on the nature and significance of impacts, which may subsequently lead to the adoption of ineffective mitigation strategies.

Sometimes, when data do exist there can be issues of interpretation bias: for example, assuming presence of a biodiversity only in areas where data exist and incorrectly categorising ‘no data’ areas as ‘low or no biodiversity value’ areas. Also, whilst protected areas may be avoided by development, such areas may not capture all critical habitat or the range for the biodiversity elements targeted for conservation.

A constraint to improving baseline understanding is that collecting field data can be slow and require seasonal and multi-annual data collection. This requires significant resources that may be lacking at early project planning stages. These issues can cause misalignment with standard project delivery, especially if there is a culture of short term task planning whereby decisions on undertaking surveys are not identified early enough in the project cycle (i.e. during strategic review and screening) and funds may not be available until a project is secure in it’s likely implementation. There may also be a lack of local capacity to conduct studies requiring reliance on international scientific inputs that may not fully understand local conditions, which may lead to incorrect conclusions being drawn. The large extent of marine areas in many regions that need to be researched to fill data gaps means that data coverage is inherently limited. Also, some species behaviour can make field surveys difficult, costly and time consuming to deliver. There can also be a focus of research in smaller localised areas of known value unless there are well funded coordinated approaches in operation that allow for wider survey effort. This focus may not necessarily be due to biodiversity value but may relate to historic identification of biodiversity hotspots, where threats have been identified, and where there is proximity to researcher bases and easy accessibility to study areas. These aspects introduce potential bias and misunderstanding of the importance of coastal and marine biodiversity where gaps in information exist. Another challenge is that traditional approaches to obtaining data can be focused on gaining academic certainty. Whilst this is important for better understanding of issues, the approaches can lead to higher resource requirements, which may not meet needs to fill data gaps over large areas with the limits that may exist for delivering studies or to deliver timely decisions. The presence of large data gaps in some areas suggests that may be a need to consider alternative approaches to provide some information that supports earlier decision-making, especially at screening and planning stages.
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ChallengeDelivering effective mitigation
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment
Applying the mitigation hierarchy
Issue AddressedUnderstanding effective mitigation strategies

Delaying key project decisions until more information is available or projects have progressed can hinder the implementation of early steps in the Mitigation Hierarchy (especially avoidance). The adoption of early avoidance approaches for important features often makes the most sense for both biodiversity and business wherever it is possible, mainly due to the uncertainties and the effectiveness of some later mitigation steps when addressing marine biodiversity impacts. This requires better early decision-making that takes account of risks so that priorities can be better considered and managed. It requires long term issues to be understood as early as possible and for precautionary approaches to be adopted that consider the effectiveness of different mitigation strategies.

Uncertainties can also lead to the planning and implementation of inappropriate or ineffective mitigation strategies, and/or an inability to measure the success of outcomes. For instance, uncertainties can undermine some offset approaches, especially related to understanding the best approach to create good conservation outcomes and also to measure the success of measures implemented. Often mitigation and monitoring approaches are generally not established in an adaptive way that seek to acknowledge the uncertainties that exist, and there can often be a lack of feedback to allow the alteration of plans when more information is available to achieve better outcomes.

Mitigation is often delivered at a project-level with little or no strategic framework in place that supports the overall management of biodiversity values at a seascape scale. There are, however, good examples of mitigation programmes that seek to develop national strategies within protected areas. The lack of strategic mitigation planning and implementation may mean that projects are unable to effectively manage their risks due to cumulative impacts from outside their Area of Influence. In general, risks and action plan measures are considered on a project-by-project basis. This means that there is significant duplication of management advice across projects, which, in many instances, could be standardised for commonly encountered important biodiversity features either for each business or at an cross-sectoral level.

There can also often be a lack of engagement with experts and local communities in the development and implementation of mitigation and monitoring measures, although this is a core requirement of leading international guidance developed by International Finance Institutions. International advice can be parachuted in for ESIA studies, but often it is not retained, and local capacity is not built to support implementation of mitigation and monitoring measures. This means that knowledge is not maintained and the opportunity to develop a local legacy for biodiversity and people is lost.

There is limited information and guidance to support the understanding of possible mitigation options across the hierarchy (especially associated with delivering avoidance, but also understanding of the limitations in the success of implementing later mitigation steps to achieve project goals and broader objectives related to creating a better legacy for biodiversity and people). This is an issue for creating informed early decisions that consider mitigation strategies, but also affects later steps of project implementation. Sometimes, guidance that is written for some species groups can be used for other groups and this is not always appropriate due to different behaviours and responses. The use of accepted guidance and the lack of interrogation into the usefulness of such mitigation can mean that impacts are not appropriately managed. Gaps in marine guidance can in some instances be easily addressed were development leads to commonly encountered risks for coastal and marine biodiversity.
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SolutionEstablish strategic frameworks and new processes to provide better support to early project decision-making
ChallengeTimely decision-making
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening

In order to create better outcomes, it may be necessary to de-couple project decision-making away from standard accepted processes, such as the reliance of making decisions within an ESIA when often important project decisions have already been made. An important solution to driving decisions that are not limited by process-led approaches is to ensure that they are driven by value-led goals. This would provide a framework to guide decision making from the outset, which may override other challenges such as the acceptance of uncertainty and adopting precautionary value-led approaches. Broad Sustainable Development Goals are providing a lead to drive business to align operation with broader values. The implementation of biodiversity indicator led approaches also provides businesses with the opportunity to understand and monitor their impacts and dependencies on marine biodiversity; and also, to inform their decision-making by developing broad goals that filter through their operations. Company led biodiversity risk assessments could also be undertaken that provide better information related to broad impacts and how to manage them strategically.

The lack of broad-scale seascape scale management of biodiversity values in many areas can mean that there is an overall degradation of the environment irrespective of project activities that are undertaken. This is of specific concern for marine biodiversity due to complex biophysical interlinkages and the various spatial and temporal scales that exist. Therefore, a key solution is to improve the implementation of strategic environmental assessment led by governments and/or businesses and multi-sectoral engagement (especially between consultants, conservationists and local communities). It may also include frameworks that provides tangible benefits for adopting the right approach or provides limits on the ability to deliver approaches that do not align with broader value-led goals. This will often require a top-down approach to provide a lead on project type, nature and approaches for delivery and implementation. This can be through the allocation of certain opportunities in spatial areas or through access to funding as an example, which will ensure that projects are aligned with broader goals at the outset. Various examples of such frameworks exist that are implemented through coastal and marine spatial planning, blue natural capital investment, local community area management that focuses on conservation and ecosystem services, and Blue Bonds for conservation that can drive government decision-making for financing etc.
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SolutionBuilding bridges in information
ChallengeTimely decision-making
Data paucity and uncertainty
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment

Although certainty is often sought before key decisions are made, there is often a need to use and rely on imperfect information at early project stages.

Opportunities exist to increase the reliance on broad-scale information to provide precautionary and predictive understanding of values that may be impacted by projects. This can include the utilisation of proxy biophysical information wherever beneficial and possible, predictive approaches, building bridges in existing data, use of expert panel and elicitation approaches etc. It is also important to improve and build upon existing publicly available data tools, especially mapping databases that exist. However, there is also a need for better understanding on the limitations of such tools, i.e. being clear that they often represent where data exists rather than what may be present in the no data areas. Whilst mapping data is effective, a problem arises associated with addressing data gaps, which can be large in some areas. One solution to addressing data gaps is the use of rapid assessment tools, including remote and field-based approaches. Another is to build bridges in existing information using local expert knowledge to provide a precautionary prediction of values that may be present. Such approaches may provide imperfect information but can often provide sufficient information to understand risks and how these can be mitigated. Rapid assessment field tools can also be used to ground truth mapped data and be developed to address local limitations (e.g. funding and capacity) for collecting more data. The establishment of approaches that incorporate local community involvement, build networks and capacity, whilst filling gaps, should be implemented to facilitate engagement and build a platform for more detailed studies.

There is also a need for better guidance on how to focus early on identifying critical long-lead and priority issues; and starting to collect data as soon as possible early on in a project life-cycle (e.g., critical habitat, multi-seasonal data, ecosystem services etc). This may require a change in alignment in how finances are allocated for project delivery and a movement away from short term task orientated delivery that is better aligned with broader value-led goals. Such approaches can be established strategically by businesses or be supported by the improved implementation of strategic frameworks as already discussed.

Businesses should seek to build an improved legacy for the understanding of biodiversity values through supporting the local delivery of studies, capacity building and through better sharing of project information. These aspects are an established recommended approached but may not be delivered effectively or at all. Better data sharing can be facilitated through data swaps (between conservation groups, governments and also industry), accessibility to data portals or as a top-down commitment for development driven by governments and financial institutions. The commercial advantage of such approaches can be established, especially where different businesses are in direct competition, which often provides a restriction to sharing information.
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SolutionImprove local social engagement and integration
ChallengeTimely decision-making
Data paucity and uncertainty
Delivering effective mitigation
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment
Applying the mitigation hierarchy

Project delivery should promote local engagement in the study and management of biodiversity values as a primary goal. This is a core requirement of leading international guidance developed by International Finance Institutions, but it is not always well implemented. The lack of integration of appropriate experts and local communities means that there is lost opportunity for building better local project legacies and also outcomes. The purpose of the engagement of local experts and communities should be to improve baseline understanding, but also to determine the best mitigation strategies and build local frameworks for the implementation of some of the measures that are identified. This means that there is a need for improved integration of biodiversity and ecosystem service linkages at an early stage, including the promotion of strategies to maximise local community benefits.

There is a wealth of experience utilised for projects that does not necessarily lead to long term local gains in knowledge and capability. This should be addressed through long term local connection with local communities supported by experts to promote local governance. This will not only provide support for earlier decision-making but will embed local input into long term project delivery with better outcomes for business, biodiversity and local people. Such goals should be embedded as early as possible to provide opportunity for local networks to be established and inputs to be provided. The aim should be to develop better long term local legacies, but also to provide connected local commercial benefits that will inevitably ensue. This requires a commitment to local capacity building that can be achieved on a project level, but it may be best achieved more strategically with a top-down approach led by government or financial institutions. As an example, this could include the establishment and investment into nationally or regionally administered ‘legacy’ funds to improve capacity for sustainable biodiversity management and monitoring.
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SolutionImproving the adoption of precaution
ChallengeTimely decision-making
Data paucity and uncertainty
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment

The high levels of uncertainty that exist for marine biodiversity means that adopting precaution is an essential component of project planning, screening and impact assessment. The adoption of precautionary approaches is an established concept that is often referred to when addressing marine biodiversity issues. However, although the concept is accepted, it is not often implemented effectively. An issue associated with the implementation of precaution is that it is often open to subjective interpretation or constrained by wider project goals. The risks that are perceived from taking precautionary approaches can be considered to be an obstacle, with preference to developing better or more certainty, which can provide a problem for timely decision-making. The quest for certainty is a powerful paradigm that influences how advice is given and accepted. There is therefore a need for better guidance on how and when to trigger precaution. Such guidance could relate to different habitats, species, geographies etc based on knowledge associated with potential values that exist and commonly encountered risks that may ensue from project activities; with an obvious link back to the development of better frameworks and also approaches to address data paucity. The establishment of value-led goals would also provide a framework to enable precautionary approaches to be more easily integrated and accepted into business decision-making.
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SolutionSupporting the application of effective mitigation
ChallengeTimely decision-making
Data paucity and uncertainty
Delivering effective mitigation
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment
Applying the mitigation hierarchy

There is a need for the improved early implementation of avoidance mitigation wherever possible. This should include an improved understanding on how the implementation of early mitigation steps can address uncertainties and the burden of implementing restoration and offsets that may come with limited success and/or where success is difficult to measure.

Often, general biodiversity management/action plan advice can be given in a precautionary and predictive way without the need for detailed ESIA studies. This is especially true for marine biodiversity in certain parts of the world where data paucity requires precautionary and predictive approaches to be considered in any case. Indeed, in many instances, delivering advice early can fast-track the implementation of the best approaches independently of ESIA approaches. Therefore, further mitigation guidance for commonly encountered high biodiversity issues should be developed to provide earlier understanding of approaches that can be taken, including their limitations. This approach would also lead to business benefits by ensuring that advice is provided strategically across all projects rather than being delivered and duplicated. Ideally, such guidance would be established and be available at a cross-sectoral level or be established across regions that have common biodiversity features developed by regional forums, transboundary government associations and cross-sectoral environmental organisations. This requires a focus on specific priority species and habitats and could include the implementation of broad-scale marine biodiversity management/action plans. Such guidance should be focused on trying to understand issues on a broad seascape scale to introduce the appropriate understanding of broad values and interactions. The aim should be to drive overall positive outcomes at a seascape scale rather than just at a project level.

Of note, there is a need for the production of clearer marine offset implementation guidance and frameworks that addresses uncertainties and delivers effective additional conservation outcomes. Such guidance should build upon the existing guidance and principles, including national strategic approaches that have been developed. The guidance should seek to address the inherent uncertainties and complexities that exist in the marine environment by providing solutions for delivery of actions that make sense and are effective. The emphasis of such guidance should be on driving offset actions at a seascape scale with broad biodiversity targets that connect cumulative actions that address impacts on primary ecosystem attributes, species and habitat interlinkages and functions, key threats; and linkages with ecosystem services. The aim should be to develop a platform to deliver offset strategies that are connected across the functions and attributes and also address key threats to promote holistic integrated approaches that benefits marine biodiversity and the people connected to it. The guidance should also address adaptive approaches to deliver offset strategies with a clear link to dealing with uncertainties. The guidance should seek to establish a framework for implementing additional conservation outcomes that are certain and measurable and set up a trajectory for establishing broad Net Gains at a strategic seascape scale.
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SolutionBetter adaptive management
ChallengeTimely decision-making
Data paucity and uncertainty
Delivering effective mitigation
Project StagesStrategic planning and screening
Impact assessment
Applying the mitigation hierarchy

Data paucity and uncertainties provide key underlying limitations for understanding baseline conditions, risks and the application of effective mitigation. Such issues can be addressed through the use and better implementation of stepped approaches that seek to simplify and improve understanding as projects proceed without providing a limit to delivering good early decision-making. The aim should be to use the solutions above to make better early decisions, but to create an approach that established feedback so that approaches are validated in their success or can be altered to make improvements where necessary. This requires better guidance on adaptive decision-making and management. Such guidance could focus on the commonly found values in certain geographic regions or that may be associated with commonly encountered risks, and to support the implementation of adaptive mitigation approaches with transparent reporting on the effectiveness and limitations of approaches related to common features or measures.
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