Summary & Outcomes -Workshop on Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) at IMPAC

Strategic environmental assessments: concepts, methods and lessons learned, and application for MPAs
Marseille, France, 23 October 2013

The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) held a technical workshop on the topic of Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) in collaboration with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (United Kingdom), the French Marine Protected Areas Agency (France) and the Wadden Sea Secretariat, as part of the 3rd International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC3) held in Marseille, France in October 2013.

The three-hour workshop aimed to foster thinking on key principles behind conducting successful SEAs in various legislative and ecological contexts, based on case studies from around the world. The concepts and methods underpinning SEAs were workshopped with participants, with special attention paid to assessing impacts on biodiversity and their cumulative effects, with possible applications to both temperate and tropical habitats. Public engagement and political buy-in aspects were also workshopped.

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

The workshop started with a brief explanation of what a ‘Strategic Environmental Assessment’ is, and why one should consider undertaking an SEA.  As opposed to ‘traditional’ Environmental Impact Assessments, which look at individual developments on a case-by-case basis, SEAs aims to capture a ‘big picture’ of the ecosystem or landscape and to assess potential impacts through a board policy, plan or program.

Main differences between SEA and traditional EIA approaches

Possible cases where an SEA approach might be appropriate include projects involving multiple stakeholders; complex developments and uses  requiring multiple assessments; and projects spanning across multiple jurisdictions and/or where there is scope for developing a regional capability.

SEAs allow setting clear goals early in the planning stage, thereby providing greater certainty to stakeholders whilst reducing the administrative burden across the board by streamlining EIA processes. It achieves better environmental outcomes by addressing multiple and cumulative impacts at the landscape level.

View presentation on “the concept of Strategic Environmental Assessment” by Jon Day, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australia

Case Studies

Case studies were presented from France, the UK, Australia and the Wadden Sea. France and the UK both operate within the context of the European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive which came into force in July 2008, requiring EU Member States to “take the necessary measures to achieve or maintain good environmental status in the marine environment by the year 2020 at the latest”.


Presenters (from left to right): David Vaughan (JNCC), Jon Day (GBRMPA), Laurence McCook (GBRMPA) and Jerome Paillet class=


Case Study: France

France undertook an initial assessment in 2010-2012, which included ecological features, pressures and impacts (including cumulative impacts), and an economic and social analysis with expert contributions for each topic. This led to the development of activities/pressures matrices, impact matrices and maps of the main ecological issues. The impact matrix, developed with the help of experts and through consultation with regional stakeholders, was color-coded with an indication of the confidence level for each rating. This fed into a spatial analysis of likely impacts, which delineated ‘areas of homogenous pressures and impact types’. The result of this assessment was translated into action plans. This model could be used to conduct SEAs for large MPAs.

View the presentation on “holistic impact assessment for applying the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive : the French approach” by Dr. Jerome Paillet, Agence des Aires Marines Protégées, France

Case Study: United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the likely condition of reefs and sandbanks in offshore waters was evaluated by assessing their vulnerability to pressures, a method used in SEAs to describe baseline, predict impacts and evaluate impact significance. The overall vulnerability of each habitat was calculated by selecting the worst case assessment in any given location, following scenario testing. Challenges are to improve the resolution of habitat maps and activities data; to better understand pressure-state and pressure-activities relationships; and to analyze cumulative effects and the prioritization of pressures. This model can be applied at multiple scales, and adapted to different requirements as a decision support tool.

View the presentation on “assessing the state of your habitat: an example in the UK” by Ana Martins de Jesus & David Vaughan, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, United Kingdom

Case Study: Australia

Australia has undertaken to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment for its Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (as well as the adjacent coastal zone). The SEA, which involves both Commonwealth and State governments, aims to ensure that management tools are most effectively tackling the range of pressures, providing greater certainty for conservation and sustainable use.  It considers how values associated with the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area are affected by impacts; and assesses the effectiveness of existing management – with a major public consultation component at all stages. 
The impact assessment element included cumulative impacts, which were assessed using a combination of color –coded pressure-value matrices; models developed for specific species or habitats; and spatial analysis of pressures. Importantly, the SEA included explicit recommendations, aimed at ensuring future management is effective at maintaining the values, and a complementary Program Report, which lays out a proposed plan for implementing the recommendations. The outcomes of the comprehensive assessment (the first in the world) will inform development of a long-term sustainability plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

View the presentation on “holistic approach to SEA: lessons learnt from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef” by Dr. Laurence McCook, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australia

Case Study: Wadden Sea

In the Wadden Sea (which includes water under jurisdiction of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark) is a World Heritage Area managed through the Wadden Sea Secretariat through trilateral cooperation measures. The trilateral Wadden Sea Plan is a first attempt at using Strategic Environmental Assessment within a multilateral context, with ecological targets driving regulations on activities and use in the three countries. Adaptation strategies were developed for different habitats following a Quality Status Report released in 2009.

View the presentation by on “SEA in a transnational context: an example in the Wadden Sea” by Jens Enemark, Wadden Sea Secretariat

Panel Discussions

Participants were able to hear from presenters during panel discussions which revolved around cumulative impact assessment methods, rationale for conducting an SEA, and management effectiveness.

Panel class=


Breakout Sessions

The key principles drawn out by workshop participants for each key concept (cumulative impact assessment and public engagement) are listed below (Download PDF of principles).

Public engagement (facilitator: Jon Day)

Current Challenges

  • Public engagement is always costly and draws on human, infrastructure and financial resources. Expense is inevitable.
  • In any public engagement process, there are sensitive cultural aspects that need to be taken into account (e.g. gender or indigenous-specific).  
  • Local hierarchy is difficult to overcome when engaging stakeholders.
  • Other (non-indigenous) traditional users are often overseen. 
  • It is sometimes difficult to convince local stakeholders that there are uncertainties associated with impacts; sometimes there has to be a ‘shift in baseline’ increase awareness of degradation processes and likely future scenarios.


  • Gathering knowledge on stakeholders prior to conducting engagement is necessary to increase credibility, and it is worth the time invested. 
  • Separate parallel processes (to regular outreach mechanisms) need to be set up to capture information from some stakeholder groups in a culturally and gender appropriate manner.
  • Public meetings are not necessarily the best way to engage; stakeholders should be able to choose their level of engagement. Polls/surveys can be used to establish the views of the silent minorities.
  • Continuous and proactive exchange with stakeholders is crucial to maintain interest and support.
  • Use experts to engage specific stakeholders.
  • Remove power hierarchy and include equal representation of decision makers.
  • Aerial imagery is a powerful tool to guide stakeholders and work with them on scenarios.  Culturally-accurate or sensitive place names are very important –  aerial imageries allow stakeholders to give their own names to places which is crucial in the engagement process.
  • The notion of uncertainty in predictions can be successfully conveyed to stakeholders through impact matrices.

Cumulative impact assessments (facilitators: Laurence Mc Cook; Jerome Paillet, David Vaughan & Ana de Jesus)

Current Challenges

  • At present, we advance towards a limit of pressure in a piecemeal, ad-hoc way, based on proposals as they arise. This results in successive proposals bearing the burden of preceding developments; and leading to inevitable conflict when the threshold of system collapse is reached, especially since it is likely to emerge unexpectedly.
  • Considering timescales, including past-present-future impacts, and estimating recovery time are essential parameters to assess cumulative impacts; but drawing the line is extremely difficult.
  • We will always need expert judgment (and therefore, research) to estimate impacts; as science will never be perfect enough to provide a completely accurate estimate of cumulative impacts. 
  • The aggregation of an increasing number of impacts can unexpectedly exceed thresholds.


  • Consider synergistic and antagonistic effects of pressures, but be candid about uncertainties, especially on interactions between pressures.
  • Take into account the vulnerability (sensitivity and exposure to a pressure) and include consideration of the resilience (or recovery) potentials of ecosystems.
  • Aim at simple outputs: impact matrices and traffic lights are acceptable to visualise and prioritise pressures; but they should be associated with precautionary thresholds and cross-calibrated accordingly, for instance by using coefficients (for quantitative approaches).
  • Models help to estimate confidence level and to explicitly measure uncertainty.
  • For data poor areas, use simpler empirical, non-quantitative methods  adapted to the context at play. 
  • Acknowledge that, given that we lack sufficient robust science to know how impacts are cumulating, managers need to estimate an overall, cumulative pressure carrying capacity (estimated threshold of system collapse) for the ecosystem or site being considered.

A Way Forward to Manage Cumulative impacts: Suggestions for Managers

  • One way of way of concretely manage cumulative impacts could be to use this estimated threshold of system collapse (perhaps augmented by a precautionary buffer) to then strategic allocate (=’sell’) overall, aggregated acceptable pressures to users, considering aspects such as location, timing, proposed offsets, etc. to determine an acceptable price.


  • This allocation could optimize benefits to the public whilst protecting biodiversity; foster strategic consideration and planning by developers; and provide a mechanism to avoid crises and adversarial conflicts as the “cut-off” limit is reached.
  • This concept could only work with robust, transparent governance and legislative frameworks in place, with strong oversight by governments through the administration of auctions and licence agreements.


Presenting the findings of workshopping class=

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