Step 10. Adapting the process

“There’s a difference between planning where you assume you really know, and planning that you use as a guide for moving ahead to accomplish certain goals. So we can in that sense of planning — acknowledge the uncertainties and use them in designing the plan and in adjusting the plan as we go…”

– Donald N. Michael, 1923-2000, American social psychologist

What outputs should be delivered from this step?

  • Revision and adaptation the marine spatial management plan as part of the continuing management cycle using of the results of the evaluation (Step 9, Evaluating performance). This step will involve considering the findings to modify management goals, objectives and actions if they are not moving toward desired outcomes. Resources should be reallocated from what is not working to what works; and
  • Identification of critical missing information or applied research needs that could reduce uncertainties in the analysis and decision making in the next round of marine planning.

What is an “adaptive approach” to management?

An adaptive approach involves exploring alternative ways to meet management objectives, predicting the outcomes of alternatives based on the current state of knowledge, monitoring to learn about the impacts of management actions, and then using the results to update knowledge and adjust management actions (Williams et al. 2009). An adaptive approach provides a framework for making good decisions in the face of critical uncertainties, and a formal process for reducing uncertainties so that management performance can be improved over time.

The results of performance monitoring and evaluation can and should be used to modify the components of a marine spatial plan, including goals, objectives and management actions. For example, if a management action proves to be ineffective, too expensive to continue, or produces unintended consequences, it should be changed as soon as possible or at least in the next round of plan revision. Similarly, if an objective of achieving 90% of desired outcome proves to be too expensive, then the objective could be reduced to achieve less at less cost.

DEFINITION. Adaptive management is simply learning from past management actions to improve future planning and management. It is learning by doing.

Adaptive management: policy as hypothesis, management by experiment

Learning is not a haphazard by-product of mistakes in policy or management. In contrast to the usual system of rewards and advancement, which tends to discourage admission of error, by using adaptive management managers and decision makers view unanticipated outcomes as opportunities to learn, and accept learning as an integrated and valued part of the management process.

Learning while doing accelerates progress towards improved policies and management. Learning is facilitated by feedback obtained from monitoring and evaluation. Without adequate investment in feedback, learning about the consequences of policies or management actions is slow; change is cumbersome and can come too late. The result is a situation where staff simply ‘muddle through’.

Parks Canada 2000


This task should address two broad questions: first, what has been accomplished through the MSP process and learned from its successes and failures? Secondly, how has the context (e.g., environment, governance, technology, economy—all tracked through state-of-the-environment monitoring) changed since the program was initiated? The answers to these questions can then be used to re-focus planning and management in the future.

If the management objectives are not being achieved on schedule (effective), at a reasonable cost (efficient), and with a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of implementation (equitable), the management objectives and management actions should be modified. For example, objectives in the first round of planning may have been too ambitious in trying to achieve too much too soon. Or the cost of implementing a particular management action may have been too high and could have been lower through a different management action. Or the costs of implementing a management action may have fallen disproportionately on a particular group of users or geographic location. If any of these outcomes are apparent, then the management plan should be modified in the next round of planning.

Marine spatial plans can be changed by:

  • Modifying MSP goals and objectives (for example, if monitoring and evaluation results show that the costs of achieving them outweigh the benefits to society or the environment);
  • Modifying desired MSP outcomes (for example, the level of protection over a large marine protected area could be changed if the desired outcome is not being achieved); and
  • Modifying MSP management actions (for example, alternative combinations of management actions, incentives and institutional arrangements could be suggested if initial strategies are considered ineffective, too expensive, or inequitable).

Modifications to the MSP program should not be made in an improvised way. They should instead be made as part of the next round of planning in a continuous process. The management actions of any first MSP program should be viewed as the initial set of management actions that can change the behaviour of human activities toward a desired future. Some management actions will produce results in a short time; others will take much longer.


“It is a bad plan that admits no modification.”

– Publius Syrus, 85 BC–43 AD, Roman slave and poet


The evaluation team, management partners, and stakeholders should meet to discuss the implications for changes in the next round of planning. In discussing these possible changes target audiences should be encouraged to interpret results in such a way that they come to their own findings and conclusions rather than being given the findings and conclusions as interpreted by the evaluation team.

Given the participatory nature of adaptive management, evaluation results should be openly shared with target audiences to ensure transparency and accountability (Parks 2011).


As any MSP program matures, the role of applied research similarly evolves, from identifying issues to developing the information needed for management and understanding the results of research, monitoring and evaluation. Reporting on success in management is very important to developing a research agenda; so is reporting on setbacks and failures.

Uncertainties always exist with respect to various aspects of developing management actions for any marine area. Therefore, an integral component of a management action includes whatever short- and long-run data collection and applied research is required to have sufficient data or information for MSP or to confirm an assumption made based only on the available information in the initial round of planning. Other uncertainties, such as the relationship between a type of habitat and productivity with respect to a given species, may require data collection and longer-run research.

Typically MSP requires a long-term commitment to data collection, management and analysis. But long-term data are frequently not available when MSP is initiated. Often, a data set extending over many decades is needed to understand the significance of human impacts compared to the natural impacts and processes that underpin the functioning of a marine ecosystem.

In the meantime, you should exercise caution when interpreting results. Ideally, monitoring and applied research should be supported by long-term funding as part of the core management of the marine area.


After a short break for R&R (Rest and Recuperation), it’s time to start the next round of marine planning that will build on what you learned during the first found including a revised set of management goals, objectives, and management actions. These will take into account the monitoring, evaluation, and results of new applied research based on the first round, as well as political, economic, and technological changes in the context of MSP.

Good practices in adapting the MSP process

MSP is a continuing process, not a one-off “master plan”. An adaptive approach to MSP is indispensable to deal with future uncertainties and to incorporate various types of change, including climate change. Management plans and actions inevitably have to be modified to respond to those changes—or plans quickly become ineffective, uneconomic, infeasible, and ultimately—irrelevant.

Adaptation can only be successful when plan objectives are clear and SMART; when management actions are clearly identified; when indicators are identified for the performance of management actions; and when performance indicators are monitored regularly. Only a very few marine spatial management plans can claim these conditions.

Only China, the Netherlands and Belgium (two revisions), and Norway, Belgium, and the US states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have completed one revision of their plans. Marine spatial plans developed in these countries all include references to monitoring and adaptation, and all have identified general goals for their plans. However, with few exceptions, none of them has translated their general goals into clear, measurable objectives and outcomes.

The lack of specific objectives in an important constraint to an adaptive approach to MSP. This inability should be of great concern because it prevents understanding what spatial and temporal management actions can effectively lead to desired outcomes. Without understanding whether or not existing marine spatial plans are actually achieving their desired results, how can we ultimately know how to improve them?

Fair winds and following seas!

Useful references:

Holling, C.S. (ed.), 1978. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. Wiley: Chichester, UK.

Walters, C., 1986. Adaptive Management: management of renewable resources. MacMillan: New York.

Parks, J., 2011. Adaptive management in small-scale fisheries: a practical approach. In: R.S. Pomeroy and N.L. Andrew, eds. Small-Scale Fisheries Management. CAB International.

Williams, B. K., R. C. Szaro, and C. D. Shapiro, 2009. Adaptive Management. U.S. Department of the Interior Technical Guide.

Management Working Group, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC. 72 p.

IOC-UNESCO’s Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management offers a 10-step guide on how to get a marine spatial plan started in your region – choose a step on the right and click on the title!

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