Currently most Cumulative Impacts Assessments (CIAs) are risk-based approaches that assess the potential impact of human activities and their pressures on the ecosystem thereby compromising the achievement of policy objectives. While some of these CIAs apply actual data (usually spatial distributions) they often have to rely on categorical scores based on expert judgement if they actually assess impact which is often expressed as a relative measure that is difficult to interpret in absolute terms. Here we present a first step-wise approach to conduct a fully quantitative CIA based on the selection and subsequent application of the best information available. This approach systematically disentangles risk into its exposure and effect components that can be quantified using known ecological information, e.g. spatial distribution of pressures or species, pressure-state relationships and population dynamics models with appropriate parametrisation, resulting in well-defined assessment endpoints that are meaningful and can be easily communicated to the recipients of advice. This approach requires that underlying assumptions and methodological considerations are made explicit and translated into a measure of confidence. This transparency helps to identify the possible data-handling or methodological decisions and shows the resulting improvement through its confidence assessment of the applied information and hence the resulting accuracy of the CIA.
To illustrate this approach, we applied it in a North Sea CIA focussing on two sectors, i.e. fisheries and offshore windfarms, and how they impact the ecosystem and its components, i.e. seabirds, seabed habitats and marine mammals through various pressures. The results provide a “proof of concept” for this generic approach as well as rigorous definitions of several of the concepts often used as part of risk-based approaches, e.g. exposure, sensitivity, vulnerability, and how these can be estimated using actual data. As such this widens the scope for increasingly more quantitative CIAs using the best information available.