Biodiversity offsets and marine and coastal development

Biodiversity offsetting has helped promote conservation of endangered species on land, but can the same ideas be applied to the sea? Dr Ameer Abdulla highlights the utility of developing marine-based biodiversity offsets.

Fishing vessels

We humans are naturally drawn to the sea. Those of us who don’t live along it have probably gone there for vacation, while more and more of us earn our livelihoods drilling for oil off the coast or erecting massive wind and wave farms to capture energy for our ever-expanding population. Then, of course, there are the fishermen who comb the sea for ever-dwindling supplies of food. All of these activities put pressure on marine and coastal ecosystems, which must be more efficiently managed if the abundant life of the sea is to survive. Biodiversity offsetting has proven to be a valuable tool for preserving endangered species of animal on land, and the same concept can be applied to the sea.

New opportunities

Biodiversity offsetting presents a new and important opportunity for the private sector and society to work together to conserve and manage biodiversity while engaging in sustainable development. Offsets are defined as “measurable conservation outcomes that are the result of activities designed to compensate for significant and unavoidable impacts on biodiversity”.

Contrary to popular opinion, biodiversity offsets do not give developers the right to run roughshod over fragile ecosystems in exchange for cash, but are seen as a last resort to be used only in certain circumstances.

Indeed, the process of developing biodiversity offsets is only initiated once realistic efforts and action have been undertaken to avoid, reduce, and manage the impacts associated with development. As such, it is based on the “avoid, minimize, offset” hierarchy established under the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity. The ultimate objective of the process is to achieve no net loss of species community structure, habitat integrity, ecosystem functioning, and the associated social values due to unpreventable impacts associated with project development (construction and operation).

A conceptual framework and methodology exists for compensatory mitigation, that means using a levy on fisheries bycatch to fund conservation actions, but true offset design and methodology for project impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity are in the early stages.

The future of marine biodiversity offsets

Biodiversity offsetting is one emerging multidisciplinary tool that has the potential to enhance corporate environmental responsibility in a multitude of different settings where human and biodiversity values may conflict.

These settings are critical pressure points where science-based conservation planning may be able to affect maximum change and ultimately, greatly enhance conservation of biodiversity within the context of unavoidable impact.

However, offsets are currently a voluntary mechanism and one that is not readily available to many practitioners. Often, project development and construction is rapid and will not wait for what may be perceived as “lengthy or unnecessary biodiversity studies”.

This is complicated in marine offsets due to the inherent logistical difficulty in accessing and studying marine systems such as deep water or pelagic habitats, coral reefs, and seagrass meadows. Undertaking evaluations in such habitats increases the time necessary to evaluate or score biodiversity and consequently the costs associated (expertise, equipment, etc.).

Emerging pilot projects

As in all disciplines, theory must precede practice and implementation. Biodiversity Offsets are a rapidly evolving multi-discipline within the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program (BBOP) of Forest Trends and the Wildlife Conservation Society. BBOP is a partnership between companies, governments and conservation experts to explore biodiversity offsets. IUCN is one of the BBOP Advisory Group Members and is also a key technical developer of Offset methodology including theory and design, specifically in marine habitats. The Program is currently engaged in: Demonstrating conservation and livelihood outcomes in a portfolio of biodiversity offset pilot projects; Developing, testing, and disseminating best practice on biodiversity offsets; and Contributing to policy and corporate developments on biodiversity offsets so they meet conservation and business objectives.

The partnership aims to show, through a portfolio of pilot projects in a range of industry sectors, that biodiversity offsets can help achieve significantly more, better and more cost-effective conservation outcomes than normally occurs in infrastructure development.

Dr Ameer Abdulla is Senior Specialist and Group Leader, Marine Biodiversity and Conservation Science, at the IUCN Global Marine Programme. He can be reached at

This article appears in the latest issue of GMP News, the newsletter of IUCN's Global Marine Programme.

Work area: 
North America
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