Using adaptive management for marine developments

What is adaptive management for marine developments

The marine environment is complex and dynamic, meaning there are lots of unknowns about the impacts from developments in, under and above it.

Adaptive management is a tool that can allow developments to potentially be consented when the environmental effects are not well understood.

As a marine developer, understanding adaptive management will help you submit a good quality development application to us and other regulators. 

Why use adaptive management

For some developments, such as marine renewable energy, adaptive management can enable deployments by helping reduce risks associated with scientific uncertainty. It can also increase our understanding of development effects on the environment.

The aim of adaptive management must be to avoid unacceptable effects. It is a systematic and iterative approach of “learning by doing and adapting as you learn”.

However, adaptive management is not appropriate for every project and must be decided on a case by case basis. 

Applying the adaptive management principles

Iterate through monitoring and analysis

Adaptive management is a process where decisions are made on available information.

It is a structured, iterative approach to environmental assessment, allowing the management of a project to be adapted based on learning once the development has been installed or constructed.

Outcomes of management decisions must be monitored and analysed.  Management actions must be altered if different to those predicted. 

Use when there is uncertainty

Adaptive management should only be used to allow projects to proceed where there is still uncertainty despite having completed a robust environmental assessment, or where the environmental baseline is likely to change.

Adaptive management is a medium to long-term strategy focused on the potential unacceptable effects of a project.

It should only be adopted after all reasonable efforts have been taken to confirm if an effect is likely to occur and where significant uncertainties remain. 

Consider level of risk

Adaptive management is not always the right approach.

Where the realistic risk of environmental impacts remain high and we don’t know how successful adaptive management will be, consents may be refused or a derogation from normal decision-making may be applied. This could be under Article 4(7) of the Water Framework Directive Article or Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive.

Learn and mitigate

Adaptive management is used to maximise learning about the interactions between a development and the environment.

Use feasible mitigation measures that have a high chance of success. 

Gathering information on the effectiveness of mitigation measures used will help build a toolkit of proven measure. 

When to apply the precautionary principle

If an activity is likely to cause impacts to the marine environment, the precautionary principle is applied. This means that measures are put in place to reduce the impact of the activity to an acceptable level. Where this can’t be achieved, you must stop the development activity until a resolution is reached.

Develop a plan

You should clearly define the required adaptive management in a strategy or plan - for example an Adaptive Environmental Management Plan (AEMP) - that you'll need to agree between the relevant parties.  This can include us and other regulators, advisors and other stakeholders. 

We advise that you submit a draft AEMP with your consent application so it can be assessed and agreed early in the consenting process.

Use action triggers and delivery timescales 

Adaptive management can use action triggers such as thresholds and delivery time-scales which are based on robust environmental standards. This allows for the right level of precaution to be taken to avoid unacceptable impacts. These must be agreed and documented within your AEMP.

Observe and monitor

Adaptive management will be informed by targeted and effective observations or information from monitoring that gives a measure of an effect, or change in effect, and how the receptor could be impacted.  Action can then be taken before an unacceptable impact occurs or threshold has been reached.

Where action cannot be taken in time, for example if by the time the effect is detected the impact is irreversible, you cannot use adaptive management.

Rely on robust monitoring data 

For adaptive management to be successful it must rely on robust monitoring data, information and - where appropriate - expert scientific judgement to deliver, fund and enforce it.  This includes making decisions on monitoring, management and remedial action. All must be technically possible and realistic to avoid unacceptable impacts.

An Environmental Advisory Group made up of a range of stakeholders including you as a developer, regulators, advisors and key stakeholders can be a useful way of implementing and managing an agreed AEMP and providing appropriate governance. Setting up an Environmental Advisory Group can be discussed during the consenting process.  

Commitment and resourcing

Where adaptive management is used, it must be committed to and resourced appropriately by all parties throughout the process. 

Consent conditions

Adaptive management is most often secured through consent conditions, such as on a marine licence.

Regulators may need to agree the details of adaptive management with you after a consent has been issued, but this must happen before construction can go ahead. This gives certainty to us and other regulators, you - the developer - and other stakeholders that an appropriate adaptive management approach will be implemented.

Project approval

A project can only be approved if the appropriate mitigation for the realistic worst-case scenario can be secured and is feasible with a high chance of success.

When adaptive management is used to comply with the Habitats Directive (Article 6(3)), it must include clear actions to be taken before a significant adverse effect upon a feature of a European protected site. 

Environmental Impact Assessments

Adaptive management is not a substitute for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).

Before adopting an adaptive management approach, you should consider all possible conventional assessment as part of your EIA carried out prior to application. This is important for developments that will become permanent infrastructure structures.

Adaptive management must be feasible with a high chance of success to avoid irreversible impacts at a later date.

Further information

If you would like more information on adaptive management, please contact us via

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