Marine spatial planning

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Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a process that brings together multiple users of the ocean – including energy, industry, government, conservation and recreation – to make informed and coordinated decisions about how to use marine resources sustainably. MSP generally uses maps to create a more comprehensive picture of a marine area[1] – identifying where and how an ocean area is being used and what natural resources and habitat exist.[2] It is similar to land-use planning, but for marine waters.

Example of MSP off Massachusetts, USA

Through the planning and mapping process of a marine ecosystem, planners can consider the cumulative effect of maritime industries on our seas, seek to make industries more sustainable and proactively minimize conflicts between industries seeking to utilise the same sea area. The intended result of MSP is a more coordinated and sustainable approach to how our oceans are used – ensuring that marine resources and services are utilized, but within clear environmental limits to ensure marine ecosystems remain healthy and biodiversity is conserved.

Definition and concept[edit]

There are a number of definitions for marine spatial planning. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, marine spatial planning 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 objectives that usually have been specified through a political process. Essentially, marine spatial planning is a planning tool that enables integrated, forward-looking and consistent decision-making on the use of the sea. Numerous countries around the globe are embracing this tool to combat crowded usage of their territorial sea waters.

The United Kingdom's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has developed a commonly used definition:

“strategic, forward-looking planning for regulating, managing and protecting the marine environment,including through allocation of space, that addresses the multiple, cumulative, and potentially conflicting uses of the sea” (DEFRA, 2004,3)

The main elements of marine spatial planning include an interlinked system of plans, policies and regulations; the components of environmental management systems (e.g. setting objectives, initial assessment, implementation, monitoring, audit and review); and some of the many tools that are already used for land use planning. Whatever the building blocks, the essential consideration is that they need to work across sectors and give a geographic context in which to make decisions about the use of resources, development, conservation and the management of activities in the marine environment (JMPMU 55, 2007).

Effective marine spatial planning has essential attributes:

  • Multi-objective. Marine spatial planning should balance ecological, social, economic, and governance objectives, but the over riding objective should be increased sustainability.
  • Spatially focused. The ocean area to be managed must be clearly defined, ideally at the ecosystem level - certainly being large enough to incorporate relevant ecosystem processes.
  • Integrated. The planning process should address the interrelationships and interdependence of each component within the defined management area, including natural processes, activities, and authorities.

Marine spatial planning in the United Kingdom[edit]

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 [3] defined arrangements for a new system of marine management, including the introduction of marine spatial planning, across the UK. Although the new system comprises the principles of marine spatial planning as articulated by the European Commission, it is commonly referred to in the UK simply as 'marine planning'.

Among the Government's stated aims for the new marine planning system is to ensure that coastal areas, the activities within them and the problems they face are managed in an integrated and holistic way. This will require close interaction with town and country planning regimes and, in England and Wales, the new regime for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) in key sectors, such as energy and transport.

The Marine Policy Statement[edit]

The cornerstone of the UK marine planning system is the Marine Policy Statement (MPS).[4] It sets out the sectoral/activity specific policy objectives that the UK Government, Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly Government and Northern Ireland Executive are seeking to achieve in the marine area in securing the UK vision of 'clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas.'

The MPS is the framework for preparing Marine Plans and taking decisions that affect the marine environment in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will also set the direction for new marine licensing and other authorisation systems in each administration. It is proposed that the draft MPS, which was subject to consultation in 2010, will be formally adopted as Government policy in 2011.

The Marine Management Organisation[edit]

In England, the new arrangements provide for the creation of the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), which started work in April 2010. The MMO will deliver UK marine policy objectives for English waters through a series of statutory Marine Plans and other measures. The first Marine Plans will start to be prepared by the MMO on adoption of the MPS in 2011. The UK Government's Consultation on a marine planning system for England [5] document provides, for the benefit of the MMO and other interested parties, more detail on the scope, structure, content and process envisaged for each Marine Plan.

Marine Scotland (Scottish Government)[edit]

Marine Scotland is the government authority which will implement marine planning in Scottish waters under the Marine (Scotland) Act.[6] A pre-consultation National Marine Plan was prepared in 2011 and the final Plan was released in March 2015[7]

Marine spatial planning in the United States[edit]

On June 12, 2009, President Obama created an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to provide recommendations on ocean policy, including MSP.

A graph showing the US marine spatial planning process

Some individual states have already undertaken MSP initiatives:


The Massachusetts Ocean Act, enacted in May 2008, requires the secretary of the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to develop a comprehensive ocean management plan. The plan will be submitted to NOAA for incorporation into the existing coastal zone management plan and enforced through the state’s regulatory and permitting processes, including the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) and Chapter 91, the state’s waterways law.

The goal is to institute a comprehensive approach to ocean resource management that supports ecosystem health and economic vitality, balances current ocean uses, and considers future needs. This will be accomplished by determining where specific ocean uses will be permitted and which ocean uses are compatible.

Rhode Island[edit]

The Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or Ocean SAMP, serves as a federally recognized coastal management and regulatory tool. It was adopted by the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC),the state’s coastal management agency on October 19, 2010. The Ocean SAMP was then adopted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on May 11, 2011. Using the best available science, the Ocean SAMP provides a balanced approach to the development and protection of Rhode Island's ocean-based resources.

Research projects undertaken by University of Rhode Island (URI) scientists provide the essential scientific basis for Ocean SAMP policy development. The Ocean SAMP document underwent an extensive public review process prior to adoption.



In 1999, the California state legislature adopted the Marine Life Protection Act. This action required the state to evaluate and possibly redesign all existing state marine protected areas and to potentially create new protected areas that could, to the greatest degree possible, act as a networked system. (Marine protected area designations in California include state marine reserves, marine parks, and marine conservation areas.) This effort does not meet the full definition of marine spatial planning since its goal was to cite only protected areas, rather than all potential ocean uses, but many of its elements (such as stakeholder involvement and mapping approaches) will be of interest to marine spatial planners.


Two controversial ocean issues led to a marine spatial planning effort: concern by fishermen over the designation of marine reserves off the Oregon coast, and proposals by industry to site wave energy facilities in Oregon ocean waters.

An executive order directed the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development to work with stakeholders and scientists to prepare a plan for ocean energy development (also known as wave energy). This plan was then to be adopted as part of the Oregon Territorial Sea Plan.

The state has appointed an advisory committee and expects to adopt the plan in early 2010. It will include mandatory policies for state and federal agency decisions with regard to locating ocean energy facilities in the Oregon Territorial Sea.


In March 2010, the Washington State Legislature enacted the Marine Waters Planning and Management Act to address resource use conflicts. A report to the legislature providing guidance and recommendations for moving forward was produced in 2011, and based on the 2012 report, the legislature authorized funds to begin the MSP process off of Washington’s coast.

A state law required an interagency team to provide recommendations to the Washington State Legislature about how to effectively use Marine Spatial Planning and integrate MSP into existing state management plans and authorities. The team is chaired by the Governor's office and coordinated by the Department of Ecology. Other members include the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Sea Grant, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Evaluation of Spatially managed marine areas[edit]

To evaluate how well a marine spatial plan performs, the EU FP7 project MESMA (2009-2013) has developed a step-wise evaluation approach. This framework[9] provides guidance on the selection, mapping, and assessment of ecosystem components and human pressures. It also addresses the evaluation of management effectiveness and potential adaptations to management. Moreover, it provides advice on the use of spatially explicit tools for practical tasks like the assessment of cumulative impacts of human pressures or pressure-state relationships. Governance is directly linked to the framework through a governance analysis that can be performed in parallel and feeds into the different steps of the framework. To help managers, MESMA has developed a tools portal.


There are a number of useful and innovative tools that can help managers implement marine spatial planning. Some include:

See also[edit]

External links and references[edit]


  1. ^ Harris, P.T.; Heap, A.D.; Whiteway, T.; Post, A.L. (2008). "Application of biophysical information to support Australia's representative marine protected area program". Ocean and Coastal Management. 51: 701–711. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2008.07.007. 
  2. ^ Baker, E.K., Harris, P.T., 2012. Habitat Mapping and Marine Management, in: Harris, P.T., Baker, E.K. (Eds.), Seafloor Geomorphology as Benthic Habitat: GeoHab Atlas of seafloor geomorphic features and benthic habitats. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 23-38.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ [3]
  6. ^ "Scottish Government - Marine Planning". Scottish Government. Retrieved 20 July 2016. 
  7. ^ "Scottish Government - Scotland's National Marine Plan". Scottish Government. Retrieved 20 July 2016. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Monitoring and evaluation of spatially managed areas: A generic framework for implementation of ecosystem based marine management and its application". Marine Policy. 37: 149–164. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2012.04.012. 

Further reading[edit]