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Marine Spatial Planning - An idea whose time has come

Date: April 08, 2015 at 15:06 GMT

Charles N. Ehler is the President, Ocean Visions Consulting, Paris - France.

Before the last century, the oceans were used mainly for two purposes: marine transportation and fishing. Conflicts between uses were few and far between, except around some ports. Fisheries were managed separately from oil and gas development, which in turn was managed separately from marine navigation, despite real conflicts between and among these uses. Single-sector management has often failed to resolve conflicts among users of marine space, rarely dealing explicitly with trade-offs among uses, and even more rarely dealing with conflicts between the cumulative effects of multiple uses and the marine environment. New uses of marine areas, including wind energy, oceanenergy, offshore aquaculture, and marine tourism, as well as the demand for new marine protected areas, have only exacerbated the situation. Single-sector management has also tended to reduce and dissipate the effect of enforcement at sea because of the scope and geographic coverage involved and the environmental conditions, in which monitoring and enforcement have to operate. In sharp contrast to the land, little “public policing” of human activities takes place at sea.

As a consequence, marine ecosystems around the world are in trouble. Both the severity and scale of impact on marine ecosystems from overfishing, habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, invasive species and climate change are increasing, with virtually no corner of the world left untouched. Awareness is growing that the ongoing degradation in marine ecosystems is, in large part, a failure of governance. Many scientists and policy analysts have advocated reforms centred on the idea of “ecosystem based management” (EBM). To date, however, a practical method for translating this concept into operational management practice has not emerged. One step in that direction is the increasing worldwide interest in “marine spatial planning”.


What Is Marine Spatial Planning?
Marine spatial planning (known as maritime spatial planning, in Europe), or MSP, is a practical way to create and establish a more rational organization of the use of marine space and the interactions between its uses, to balance demands for development with the need to protect marine ecosystems, and to achieve social and economic objectives for marine regions in an open and planned way. MSP is a public process of analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic and social goals and objectives that are usually specified through a political process. Its characteristics include:

  • integrated across economic sectors and governmental agencies, and among levels of government;
  • strategic and future-oriented, focused on the long-term;
  • participatory, including stakeholders actively in the entire process;
  • adaptive, capable of learning by doing;
  • ecosystem-based, balancing ecological, economic, social, and cultural goals and objectives towards sustainable development and the maintenance of ecosystem services; and
  • place-based or area-based, i.e., integrated management of all human activities within an area identified through ecological, socio-economic, and jurisdictional considerations.

It is important to remember that we can only plan and manage human activities in marine areas, not marine ecosystems or components of ecosystems. We can allocate human activities to specific marine areas by objective, e.g., development or preservation areas, or by specific uses, e.g., offshore energy, offshore aquaculture, or sand and gravel mining.


Why Is Marine Spatial Planning Needed?
Most countries already designate or zone marine space for a number of human activities, such as maritime transportation, oil and gas development, offshore energy, offshore aquaculture and waste disposal. However, the problem is that usually this is done on a sector-by-sector, case-by-case basis without much consideration of effects either on other human activities or the marine environment. Consequently, this situation has ledto two major types of conflict:

  • Conflicts among human uses (user-user conflicts); and
  • Conflicts between human uses and the marine environment (user-nature conflicts).

These conflicts weaken the ability of the ocean to provide the necessary ecosystem services upon which humans and all other life on Earth depend. Furthermore, decision makers in this situation usually end up only being able to react to events, often when it is already too late, rather than having the choice to plan and shape actions that could lead to a more desirable future of the marine environment.

By contrast, marine spatial planning is a future-oriented process. It offers a way to address both these types of conflict and select appropriate management measures to maintain and safeguard necessary ecosystem services. MSP focuses on the human use of marine spaces and places. It is the missing piece that can lead to truly integrated planning from coastal watersheds to marine ecosystems.

When effectively put into practice, MSP can be used to:

  • Set priorities - to enable significant inroads to be made into meeting the development objectives of marine areas in an equitable way, it is necessary to provide a rational basis for setting priorities, and to manage and direct resources to where and when they are most needed;
  • Create and stimulate opportunities for new users of marine areas, including ocean energy;
  • Co-ordinate actions and investments in space and time to ensure positive returns from those investments, both public and private, and to facilitate complementarity among jurisdictions and institutions;
  • Provide a vision and consistent direction, not only of what is desirable, but what is possible in marine areas;
  • Protect nature, which has its own requirements that should be respected if long-term sustainable development is to be achieved and if large-scale environmental degradation is to be avoided or minimized;
  • Reduce fragmentation of marine habitats, i.e., when ecosystems are split up due to human activities and therefore prevented from functioning properly;
  • Avoid duplication of effort by different public agencies and levels of government in MSP-related activities, including planning, monitoring and permitting; and
  • Achieve higher quality of service at all levels of government, e.g., by ensuring that permitting of human activities is streamlined when proposed development is consistent with a comprehensive spatial plan forthe marine area.


Why Is Space and Time Important?
Some areas of the ocean are more important than others — both ecologically and economically. Species, habitats, populations of animals, oil and gas deposits, sand and gravel deposits, and sustained winds or waves — are all distributed in various places and at various times. Successful marine management needs planners and managers that understand how to work with the spatial and temporal diversity of the sea. Understanding these spatial and temporal distributions and mapping them is an important aspect of MSP. Managing human activities to enhance compatible uses and reduce conflicts among uses, as well as to reduce conflicts between human activities and nature, are important outcomes of MSP. Examining how these distributions might change due to climate change and other long-term pressures, e.g., overfishing, on marine systems is another important step of MSP.


What Have Been the Principal “Drivers” of MSP?
Pressures from human activities have often led to initiatives to better manage marine areas. For example, in the 1970s, the threat of offshore oil and gas development and phosphate mining led to efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef. More recently, particularly in Western Europe, MSP has been driven by national policies to develop offshore wind energy in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany (all of whom have developed and implemented marine plans), and the United Kingdom (England has only just begun development of marine spatial plans for two sub-regions of its marine area). There is also a requirement to designate more marine protected areas under directives of the European Commission. These “new” uses have had to compete with traditional users for scarce ocean space. Offshore wind energy has also been a driver for MSP in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the United States of America (USA), both of which have completed plans for their state waters that identify “appropriate” areas for wind energy development.

Since ocean energy remains in the R&D stage today, it has not been a principal driver of MSP in any country, to date. While interests in the development of an ocean energy sector are high, large-scale commercial development and economic viability appear to still lie in the future. In 2009, Marine Scotland published a consultation document on a framework for MSP and a guidance document for marine renewable energy for the Pentland Firth and Orkney waters (0-12 nm) - an area long recognized for its ocean energy potential.

In the USA, the State of Oregon is completing a plan for its marine waters that is considering the potential of ocean energy. Oregon has an ideal combination of high-energy waves and available infrastructure that has led many companies to try to stake a claim to the State’s potentially lucrative waters. The Oregon State government reached an agreement in 2008 with the federal agency responsible for issuing ocean energy permits to suspend issuing wave energy permits while the State updated its Territorial Sea Plan to deal with the new use of the ocean. The Federal Government has to work with the State in permitting sites inside statewaters (0 - 3 nm) and as far out as the outer continental shelf. Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Committee has been gathering data to identify possible wave energy sites, including key fishing grounds, important wildlife areas, and to other competing uses. The plan should be completed in 2012.


What Are the Key Elements of Marine Spatial Planning?
The development and implementation of MSP involves a number of steps, including:

  1. Identifying need and establishing authority;
  2. Obtaining financial support;
  3. Organizing the process through pre-planning;
  4. Organizing stakeholder participation;
  5. Defining and analyzing existing conditions;
  6. Defining and analyzing future conditions;
  7. Preparing and approving the spatial management plan;
  8. Implementing and enforcing the spatial management plan;
  9. Monitoring and evaluating performance; and
  10. Adapting the marine spatial management process.

These 10 steps are not simply a linear process that moves sequentially from step to step. Many feedback loops should be built into the process. For example, goals and objectives identified early in the planning process are likely to be modified as costs and benefits of different management measures are identified later in the planning process. Analyses of existing and future conditions will change as new informationis identified and incorporated in the planning process. Stakeholder participation will change the planning process, as it develops over time. Planning is a dynamic process and planners and stakeholders have to be open to accommodating changes as the process evolves over time.

Comprehensive MSP provides an integrated framework for management that provides a guide for, but does not replace, single- sector management. For example, MSP can provide important contextual information for guiding marine protected area management or for fisheries management, but does not replace it.

MSP answers four simple questions:

  • Where are we today? What are the baseline conditions?
  • Where do we want to be? What are the alternative spatial scenarios of the future? What is the desired vision?
  • How do we get there? What spatial management measures move us toward the desired future?
  • What have we accomplished? Have the spatial management measures moved us in the direction of the desired vision? If not, how should they be adapted in the next round of planning?


What Are the Outputs of Marine Spatial Planning?
The principal output of MSP is a comprehensive spatial management plan for a marine area or ecosystem. The plan moves the whole system toward a “vision for the future”. It sets out priorities for the area and - more importantly - defines what these priorities mean in time and space. Typically, a comprehensive spatial management plan has a 10- to 20-year horizon and reflects political and social priorities for the area. The comprehensive marine spatial plan is usually implemented through a zoning map, zoning regulations, and/or a permit system similar to a comprehensive regional plan on land. Individual permit decisions made with inindividual sectors (for example, the fisheries, or oil and gas, or tourism sectors) should then be based on thezoning maps and regulations.

MSP does not replace single-sector planning and decision making. Instead, it aims to provide guidance for arange of decision makers responsible for particular sectors, activities, or concerns, so that they have the means to make decisions confidently in a more comprehensive, integrated and complementary way.


Why Is Stakeholder Participation Critical to Marine Spatial Planning?
Involving key stakeholders, including those in the ocean energy sector, in the development of MSP is essential for a number of reasons. Of these, the most important is that MSP aims to achieve multiple objectives (social, economic and ecological) and should therefore reflect as many expectations, opportunities or conflicts that are occurring in the MSP area, as possible. The scope and extent of stakeholder involvement differs greatly from country to country and is often culturally influenced. The level of stakeholder involvement will largely depend on the legal or cultural requirements for participation that often exist in each country.

Generally speaking, all individuals, groups and organizations, which are, in one way or another affected, involved or interested in MSP, can be considered stakeholders. However, involving too many stakeholders at the wrong moment or in the wrong form can be very time consuming and can distract resources from the expected or anticipated result. To involve stakeholders effectively (e.g., leading toward expected results) and efficiently (e.g., producing expected results at least-cost), three questions should be asked:

  • Who should be involved?
  • When should stakeholders be involved?
  • How should stakeholders be involved?

Where no legal obligations exist, it is important to define what type of stakeholder participation will be most suitable for a successful result. For instance, involving indigenous people in MSP efforts may not be a legal requirement, but they could however be greatly affected (positively or negatively) by MSP management measures, and should therefore participate.

Wide-ranging and innovative approaches to stakeholder participation and proactive empowerment shouldbe used in the MSP process. Stakeholder participation and involvement in the process should be early, often, and sustained throughout the process. Stakeholder participation and involvement encourages “ownership” of the plan and can engender trust among the various stakeholders. Different types of stakeholder participation should be encouraged at various stages of the MSP process. The key stages at which stakeholders should be involved in the process include:

  • The planning phase: Stakeholders need to be involved and contribute to the setting of goals and objectives of MSP. They also need to be involved in the evaluation and choice of specific management measure options and the consequences of these choices on their areas of interest;
  • The implementation phase: Stakeholders should be involved in the actual implementation of MSP and its management measures. For example, an approach to enforcement may be identified and that would involve local communities in the regulatory and enforcement process. When the local communities understand the problems and benefits of taking action—and agree upon the management measures to be taken—they will be part of the enforcement process, at least to the extent of encouraging compliance; and
  • The monitoring and evaluation (post-implementation) phase: Stakeholders should be involved in the evaluation of the overall effectiveness of MSP in achieving goals and objectives. The post-evaluation effort should involve all stakeholders in a discussion to identify plan results, evaluate results against objectives, and prepare the next round of planning.


While ocean energy has not been a principal driver of MSP so far, the situation is likely to change over the next two decades. Since ocean energy projects may take up significant areas of local ocean space, it is likely to compete with other purposes for the same space, including other human uses and areas reserved for nature conservation. The possible impacts of ocean energy on other uses, such as marine transport, offshore aquaculture, fishing, and recreation, will depend on the location of ocean energy infrastructure. Certainly over the next decade, MSP will be up and running in the marine areas of most countries. Early and continuing engagement with these emergent MSP processes will certainly benefit the ocean energy sector.


11 Charles Ehler is a consultant to the Marine Spatial Planning Initiative of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Information on this initiative is available at:, including the UNESCO publication, Marine Spatial Planning: a step-by-step approach toward ecosystem-based management.

The OES is organised under the auspices of the International Energy Agency (IEA) but is functionally and legally autonomous. Views, findings and
publications of the OES do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the IEA Secretariat or its individual member countries.