Cumulative effects – Avoiding unintended consequences of our decisions

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A little wine with dinner won’t hurt you. But what if you added a glass of scotch before every meal and a bag of chips between meals every day? What might the cumulative effects be on your heart, your liver, your state of mind?

If you knew what this combination of “inputs” would do to your physical, emotional and economic well-being, you might make different decisions – or perhaps regulate your behaviour. Perhaps you would measure your weight, waistline and blood pressure and think ahead 10 years to see what the cumulative effect of your current behaviour might be of your overall health.

With help from consulting biologist Steven Wilson, the MaPP initiative hopes to apply this kind of thinking to decision-making for the marine environment.  Called cumulative effects assessment, the MaPP initiative is looking for ways to capture the combined effects over time of multiple activities and factors on ocean habitats.

Cumulative effects are defined as “changes to environmental, social, and economic values caused by the combined effect of present, past and reasonably foreseeable human actions or natural events.” Or as Wilson says, “The effects of several actions are more than their sum … there’s some sort of interaction of effects that adds up to more than if they were individually applied.”

The Province of British Columbia is working on a broad cumulative effects strategy that will include the marine environment. This strategy, known as the Cumulative Effects Framework, is developing a new approach and tools for assessing and managing cumulative effects in the province.

Jointly led by the Ministries of Environment and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the framework approach was defined, tested in regional demonstration projects and evaluated to assess the implications of the provincial implementation. Phased implementation of the Framework began in spring of 2014.

The MaPP initiative is a partner to test the Framework, and is providing valuable input on how the terrestrial and marine cumulative effects frameworks intersect through the inter-relationships between land and sea. To learn more about the Cumulative Effects Framework visit their website.

This dovetails nicely with the broader development of marine plans, where Wilson has helped the MaPP initiative to adapt the Cumulative Effects Framework for the North Pacific coast. Similar to the broader provincial efforts, the goal of the framework is to inform both management and regulatory processes and, in doing so, improve the stewardship of coastal and marine ecosystems and the human well-being of coastal communities.

Wilson explains that there are three major types of challenges related to determining cumulative effects in the marine environment: informational, regulatory and institutional legacy.

Because cumulative effects assessment and management is a relatively new field, there is less information about the interactive effects of various marine activities. So Wilson identifies a regulatory problem, which is linked to the information problem. “If you don’t have the information, it’s hard to set regulations,” he says.

In addition, as Wilson explains, institutional legacy makes it difficult to manage marine resources in an integrated manner. For instance, permits are issued by activity and those activities can come under different jurisdictions, be it First Nations, provincial government or federal government. “What we are realizing,” he says, “Is that everyone can be diligently doing everything right, individually we can all be doing the right thing, but collectively we still run the risk of failing.”

There are no quick fixes to address the challenges associated with identifying and managing cumulative effects in the MaPP study area but the MaPP Cumulative Effects Assessment Framework is a start.

It is a challenging and complex undertaking but for Wilson, the goal is relatively simple. “What we want to do is avoid the unintended consequences of the decisions we make.”