It All Adds Up: Enhancing Ocean Health by Improving Cumulative Impacts Analyses in Environmental Review Documents

  • July 2014
  • 33 Stan.Envtl.L.J. 351
  • Article
Erin E. Prahler, Center for Ocean Solutions
Sarah M. Reiter, Center for Ocean Solutions
Meredith Bennet, Center for Ocean Solutions
Ashley L. Erickson, Center for Ocean Solutions
Molly Loughney Melius, Center for Ocean Solutions
Margaret R. Caldwell, Center for Ocean Solutions

Coastal and marine ecosystems provide a variety of benefits, including seafood, transportation of goods, recreation and energy, employment, and well being for human communities. However, human activities—ranging from sea-based activities such as fishing, aquaculture, and shipping to land-based activities such as development, agriculture, and mining—are pervasive and are escalating pressure on marine species and ecosystems. Generally, the total cumulative impact of these activities on ocean ecosystems is greater than each activity’s impact in isolation, and the combination of activities has the potential to cause severe environmental degradation. Congress and the California Legislature recognized this potential when they enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), respectively, over forty years ago and included provisions requiring agencies to assess the cumulative environmental impacts of their actions. These statutes apply to ocean and coastal areas under federal and state jurisdiction, respectively.

Despite environmental management mandates to analyze cumulative impacts as part of environmental reviews, there is evidence that cumulative impacts are continually increasing, particularly in marine ecosystems. This article seeks to address the ways in which agencies and contracted consultants can conduct cumulative impacts analyses consistent with sound science under the existing law. The article also adds to the current body of scholarly literature on cumulative impacts by emphasizing marine-based cumulative impacts—a topic few legal scholars have addressed. This topic is also relevant because marine environments are comprised of complex ecosystems, many of which are challenging to study and generally less understood than terrestrial ecosystems.

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