The emerging concept of marine biodiversity offsets and their potential uses with MPAs

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[Editor's note: The Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC3) - held in October in Marseille, France - engaged 1500 participants from 87 nations.  There was an enormous amount of information shared.  Continuing from our previous issue, MPA News is highlighting some of the novel ideas and developments that emerged at the meeting.  In this issue, we cover the topic of biodiversity offsets.]

Several presentations at IMPAC3 addressed a relatively new concept in the ocean management realm: marine biodiversity offsets.  A biodiversity offset is a way to demonstrate that an infrastructure project is implemented in a manner that results in "no net loss" of biodiversity.  If the installation of a proposed offshore oil drilling platform, for example, is anticipated to have certain negative impacts on benthic habitat, an offset could involve protecting similar habitat elsewhere, or fostering new habitat, to balance the habitat loss at the platform site.  (If a project has already been implemented, an offset could involve restoring any habitat that has been degraded in the process.)

Such offsets, sometimes referred to as compensation, have existed in land management for a while.  But the idea has only become more common in ocean management as industries such as petroleum exploration, renewable energy, and seabed mining establish a greater marine presence. 

MPA News examines the challenges involved with biodiversity offsets and their potential uses in the context of MPAs.

Introduction to biodiversity offsets

When it comes to addressing the negative impacts of a development project, offsets are typically the third priority:

  • The first priority is avoiding such negative impacts all together.  In the Pacific Ocean, for example, where multiple nations are scrambling to stake seabed mining claims, the International Seabed Authority in 2012 enacted a network of provisional "Areas of Particular Environmental Interest" covering 1.44 million km2.  These protected areas, designed to safeguard sites of high benthic biodiversity, are off-limits to mining claims and were implemented before mining began - www.isa.org.jm/files/documents/EN/18Sess/Council/ISBA-18C-22.pdf.
     
  • The second priority is reducing the negative impacts of a project.  This can be achieved through better design of coastal and offshore installations, or through innovative construction techniques.
     
  • The third priority, when avoidance and reduction are not enough or not an option, is offsets.

Offsets can take various forms.  Some jurisdictions (like Brazil) assess a fee on development projects.  That fee, a percentage of the projected cost of a development, goes to a fund that is intended to pay for offsetting measures.  Such measures could include the creation of new protected areas or the enhancement of existing ones.  Other offset frameworks are more reactive, assessing fines after impacts have occurred, such as from an oil spill.  Such approaches are central to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment procedure in the US, as in the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.  Another example would be the fines assessed by a Canadian court in 2013 in response to a spill of 70 liters of fuel into the Gilbert Bay MPA ("An overview of the Gilbert Bay MPA oil spill case", MPA News 14:6).  Half of the Cdn $115,000 in assessed fines was allocated to support restoration and research pertaining specifically to the impacted MPA.

Conceivably there are ways for offsets to benefit MPAs, including as a new funding stream for existing sites (e.g., from a tax on each offshore development project) or as a lever for the designation of new MPAs in return for development.  But Fabien Quetier, an ecologist with BIOTOPE, the leading biodiversity consultancy in France, says it is not that simple.  The author of several publications on offsets, Quetier says that to be rigorous, the conservation outcomes of offsets must be quantifiable.  Furthermore, you must demonstrate the offsets have achieved no net loss of biodiversity - a complex and inexact calculation, to be sure.

"I don't know of any marine or coastal development projects yet that demonstrably achieved no net loss of biodiversity," he says.  "One of the key issues in designing offsets is ensuring 'additionality': offsets must fund actions - gains in biodiversity - that would not have occurred but for the offset.  This is where the challenge of funding existing MPAs through offsets would lie: where is the gain?"

Quetier suggests that establishing new MPAs where the case for an "averted loss" can be made would be more reasonable.  He cites the example of port developments in Corsica where offsets have involved giving money to an MPA agency to expand the MPA network there.  The most tangible type of biodiversity gain, he says, would be the rehabilitation and restoration of degraded coastal and marine systems, although even these would still involve thorny considerations of feasibility and time lags.

Offsetting the impacts of an offshore wind farm on wildlife

At IMPAC3, a session on NGO/industry partnerships provided an example of the planning of offsets.  Off the northern coast of France, wind power company La Compagnie du Vent, GDF SUEZ Group, is planning an offshore wind farm with 62 wind turbines.  Nearly one-fifth of the project site would be within the boundary of a marine protected area - the Marine Natural Park of the Picard Estuaries and Opal Sea - which serves as an important flyway for seabirds.  (The MPA regulations allow for multiple human activities, including wind power.)

LPO, a conservation group that serves as the French partner for BirdLife International and as France's coordinator on the FAME project (www.fameproject.eu), wants the wind farm development to be as environmentally friendly as possible to seabirds and other wildlife.  And French regulations require that there be no net loss of biodiversity as a result of the wind farm project.  The wind power company and the conservation organization are now working together to mitigate the potential development impacts, including through ideas for offsets.

Thomas Bordron, project chief for this project at La Compagnie du Vent, GDF SUEZ Group, says he appreciates this opportunity to find ways to avoid or reduce the project's biodiversity impacts, even though these may involve increasing costs for the development.  He would rather plan for those costs in this conception phase of the project than encounter them later when construction is already underway.

"We are contemplating choosing a type of foundation [for the turbines] that would involve a lower acoustic impact during construction," says Bordron.  "We have also discussed avoiding a sensitive fish nursery area."

Despite these efforts to avoid and reduce impacts, the wind farm may still have effects on biodiversity.  Some seabirds could collide with the turbines, for example.  The government's "no net loss" requirement will need to be met with offsets.  What that requirement will look like in practice remains unclear.  The partners are examining potential options, such as designation of a dedicated bird protected area or the establishment of seabird rescue center.

For more information:

Fabien Quetier, BIOTOPE, Meze, France. Email: fquetier [at] biotope.fr

Thomas Bordron, La Compagnie du Vent, GDF SUEZ Group, Montpellier, France. Email: thomas.bordron [at] compagnieduvent.com

Amelie Boue, LPO, Rochefort, France. Email: amelie.boue [at] lpo.fr

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BOX: More sources on biodiversity offsets

Comments

My personal opinion is that while offsets may be a potentially attractive idea, in practice they usually represent a "slippery slope."  For years, in the US, there was a "no net loss" tradeoff for wetlands, largely involving requiring mitigation of "unavoidable" wetlands loss from development projects (through "wetlands creation") which rarely produced wetlands that functioned as well as what was lost (if the wetlands mitigation was ever seriously attempted at all).  Perhaps more importantly, however, the primary pitfall with offsets is the potential risk of the MPA permitting the offset because they desperately need the funding that would be generated.  The "avoidance" (how many times are we really faced with a project that can be pursued in no place other than the MPA where the developer wants to put it?)  and "mitigation" steps are often found to be politically challenging, as the project is likely to have many supporters (in powerful positions) who want the jobs or economic development that will be created by the project, and the decision making becomes more about "how do we find a way to permit this project" than "how do we get the developer to move the activity outside the MPA/agree to costly mitigation."  Anyone who has been involved in MPA management for any length of time has seen this happen, or has been compelled to permit a project they felt should not move forward, and even been perhaps be enticed by what the could accomplished at the site with the additional funds generated by the offset.  Most of the time, good things can be accomplished with these additional funds, but once the project is completed, the impacts realized are likely be more enduring than the flow of new funds.  Perhaps this seems cynical, but having a way to get around legitimate and necessary prohibitions on human activities we work very hard, up front, to put in place for MPAs just makes it harder to save us from ourselves...         

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