Step 5. Analyzing existing conditions

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

– Voltaire, 1694-1778, French philosopher

What outputs should be delivered from this step?

  • An inventory and maps of ecologically or biologically sensitive areas in the marine management area;
  • An inventory and maps of current human activities (and pressures) in the marine management area;
  • An assessment of possible conflicts and compatibilities among existing human uses; and
  • An assessment of possible conflicts and compatibilities between existing human uses and the environment

DEFINITION. An inventory is a means of gathering information on the current status of the coastal and marine environment. Its purpose is to bring together a wide range of baseline information. An inventory should also take account any obvious trends and developments in order to be able to assess spatial pressures at a later stage of the planning process.

An inventory can be completed both at any spatial and temporal level and also at various levels of detail. Although an inventory should try to be as comprehensive as possible, collating all the necessary information is likely to be an incremental process. Initially, an inventory is used simply to gather information, providing the necessary background information for MSP. This step will try to answer a key question: Where are we now? It should be refined during the MSP process to reflect modified objectives and new sources of data.

Questions to consider when preparing an inventory

  • What are the specific ecological characteristics of the marine management area? Where are the particularly ecologically sensitive or biologically important areas?
  • Are there any specific economic and social factors that need to be considered?
  • Are there any sectors that depend on a certain type of marine management area?
  • What are the main pressures on the marine management area, and are there any particular threats? What are the main driving forces likely to shape marine development in the near future?

At least three general categories of spatial information are relevant: (1) biological and ecological distributions including areas of known importance for a particular species or biological community; (2) spatial and temporal information about human activities; and (3) oceanographic and other physical environmental features (bathymetry, currents, sediments) that in the absence of comprehensive biological data can be especially important for identifying different habitats and important processes, e.g., upwelling areas. The mapping of jurisdictional and administrative boundaries will also be relevant when institutional arrangements are considered (Step 7, Developing the plan).

Collecting and collating spatially-explicit databases is often the most time consuming aspect of planning and management activities. In conducting a review of available data, you should look for spatial and temporal information that covers most of the marine management area. It is often unproductive to spend time collecting fine-scale data sets for small sub-areas of the marine management area because, when taken together, they are frequently not comparable.

Data can be collected from many sources including: (1) scientific literature; (2) expert scientific opinion or advice; (3) government sources; (4) local knowledge; and (5) direct field measurement. Most marine spatial planning efforts rely heavily on the first three sources of data, although local knowledge is increasingly recognised as a valuable source of information for MSP. New direct field measurements are expensive and time-consuming, and should be kept to a minimum, especially in the initial round of planning. Later, after important knowledge gaps have been identified, some field work may be undertaken. Most initial data collection and mapping can be done through specialised inter-agency working groups and by consulting experts on various topics.


The sea is spatially very diverse in terms of patterns of bathymetry, water stratification and movement, living organisms and effects from human activities. It is also very diverse where time is concerned; some important things happen in terms of hours, days, or months, and others happen over years, decades, or centuries. The complexity of natural processes in the sea and resulting mosaic patterns in space and time mean that any ‘one size fits all’ management regime that treats the sea as uniform or attempts to divide it in ways that do not reflect its real diversity is likely to fail. Successful marine management needs planners and managers who understand and work with the sea’s diversity in space and time. Some places in the sea have much greater importance than others for particular species, ecosystems, or processes and, hence, for humans too. ‘Real estate values’ in the sea vary enormously, just as they do on land. Knowing which places are most important to conserve and which places are compatible with development is central to the art of MSP.

An important task is the identification and mapping of “key ecological features” (an Australian term) or “ecologically or biologically significant areas” (EBSAs, a Canadian term later taken on by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)).

DEFINITION. Ecologically or biologically significant areas (EBSAs) are geographically or oceanographically discrete areas that provide important services to one or more species/populations of an ecosystem or to the ecosystem as a whole, compared to other surrounding areas or areas of similar ecological characteristics….for example, an area containing: (i) breeding grounds, spawning areas, nursery areas, juvenile habitat or other areas important for life history stages of species; or (ii) habitats of migratory species (feeding, wintering or resting areas, breeding, moulting, migratory routes)…or an area critical for threatened, endangered or declining species and/or habitats, containing (i) breeding grounds, spawning areas, nursery areas, juvenile habitat or other areas important for life history stages of species; or (ii) habitats of migratory species (feeding, wintering or resting areas, breeding, moulting, migratory routes).
Adapted from the CBD, 2009

Scientific criteria can be used to identify important biological and ecological areas that need special protection. The following table lists a number of these criteria.

Examples of ecologically or biologically sensitive areas include:

  • Areas of high biodiversity
  • Areas of high endemism (species, populations or communities)
  • Areas of high productivity (species, populations or communities), e.g. upwelling areas
  • Aggregation sites
  • Spawning/breeding areas
  • Calving areas
  • Feeding/foraging areas
  • Nesting/staging areas
  • Nursery areas
  • Haul-out areas
  • Migration stopover points/migration routes
  • Wetlands
  • Seagrass beds
  • Coral reefs

Bioregional profiles and plans

The Australian Government’s Department of the Environment has completed five “bioregional profiles” of its marine waters extending from 3 – 200 nautical miles from shore that describe the marine ecosystems, conservation values, and human uses of these marine bioregions. The profiles describe: the ecological and biophysical features of these marine regions including major ecosystems; the marine species, communities and places already specially protected under existing legislation; the key ecological features of the region; and human activities in the region (see Key MSP Documents).

Example from Australia.

Biovaluation maps

An extension of the idea of ecologically or biologically significant areas, or EBSAs, is a new method for mapping ecological or biological values. However, in contrast to the EBSA or “hotspot” approach that maps the most valuable areas, biological valuation mapping (BVM) presents the intrinsic values of all areas or zones of the marine management area. BVM serves as a baseline map showing the distribution of complex biological and ecological information.

Example from Belgium, GAUFRE Pilot Project, University of Ghent.


Another important task is compiling information and mapping the spatial and temporal distribution and density of important human activities in the marine management area. Important human uses include both commercial and recreational fishing; marine transportation; renewable and non-renewable energy production; and sand and gravel mining, among others. Examples of human activities in marine areas are listed in the Table below. The distribution of species, communities and habitats is very diverse and therefore some areas are biologically or ecologically more valuable than others. The same is also true for human activities. Some areas are more economically valuable than others, such as: sand and gravel deposits; oil and gas deposits; areas of high-sustained winds; fishing grounds; and marine transport routes. These areas are important to identify and map.

Examples of human activities in the marine environment

Commercial fishing

  • nets
  • hook/line
  • pots/traps
  • spears/harpoons
  • trawls/dredges
  • seine nets
  • beach seines
  • purse seines

Offshore aquaculture/mariculture
Recreational fishing

  • hook/line
  • pots/traps
  • shellfishing
  • spearfishing

Subsistence fishing

  • sailing
  • boating
  • personal watercraft
  • scuba diving/snorkelling
  • surfing
  • wildlife watching

Marine transportation

  • cargo vessels
  • tankers
  • liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers
  • cruise ships
  • ferries

Port and harbours

  • operations
  • cruise ship facilities
  • industrial infrastructure
  • dredging
  • dredged material disposal

Offshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals
Offshore airports
Offshore industrial production facilities
Offshore oil and gas

  • exploration sites
  • development sites

Scientific research

  • reference sites

Cables, pipelines, transmission lines
Offshore mining

  • sand and gravel
  • diamonds

Offshore renewable energy

  • wind farms
  • wave parks
  • tidal
  • currents

Ocean desalination plants
Carbon sequestration sites
Military operations

  • missile firing ranges

Marine Protected Areas

  • strictly protected marine reserves
  • multiple use marine parks

Cultural and historic conservation

  • shipwrecks
  • maritime archeology sites
  • cultural heritage sites
  • sacred sites

World’s largest offshore wind farm: the London Array, located in the Thames Estuary, 175 wind turbines, occupying 100 sq km, 25 m water depth, 12 miles offshore, construction 2009-2012.

The London Array from space.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Connecting offshore activities with onshore communities

The human dimension of MSP is usually simplified to a listing and mapping of activities (e.g., oil and gas, fisheries, shipping).  These are, of course, vital to document, but they are complex processes across a variety of scales parallel to biophysical processes. Ecosystem-based approaches have transformed both the way we view biophysical processes and, by association, the way we also now manage the biophysical environment by understanding processes, connections, space, and scales. In the same way, human dimensions need to be examined through a similar understanding of processes (e.g., community and territory), connections (e.g. within and across communities, economies), space (e.g., territories, cultural perceptions) and scales (e.g. local, regional, national scales of society).

Unfortunately, not much work is being carried out on the social or human geography of the oceans. The human dimensions of the marine environment are widely recognised as important to include and integrate into decision-making. However, there are few layers of socio-economic information that one might combine with the biophysical in, for example, spatial suitability analyses for the establishment of a marine protected area (although there are some notable exceptions, e.g., work undertaken through the California Marine Life Protection Act).


Data management is as important as the data themselves. Information learned and data created throughout the MSP process may remain underused without good data management. Documentation and metadata should be standard procedures during spatial data management that describe tabular and spatial data (products and source data) and include projections, scale accuracy, data types, confidence levels, sources and contacts.

Mapping the social landscape of fishers in the Gulf of Maine

The work of Kevin St. Martin, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (USA), illustrates how the human dimension can be added to marine spatial planning. Based on the local knowledge of fishers of the Gulf ofMaine along the northeastern coast of North America, he has developed maps showing: (1) where fishers fish; (2) who fishes (by gear type and port) in what locations (identifying discrete areas corresponding to the “home range” of vessels from various ports; and (3) where peer groups fish (identifying fishing locations by gear type for single ports).

The results of this work include the development of a method for producing maps of the ‘social landscape’ of the Gulf of Maine, an improved understanding of the processes of human community and territory in this ocean space, a way of reducing uneven impacts of spatial planning decisions, and improved participation of fishers in science and management.

Furthermore, when socio-economic information is available and integrated, it is often expressed as the presence or absence of particular activities, such as fishing, mineral extraction, dredging and shipping. Documenting these activities in space is clearly important to spatial planning and decision-making, but once reduced to layers in the GIS, these activities become somewhat dehumanised and severed from the communities that they support and/or from which they originate. What is incorporated into the GIS is, for example, a layer representing fishing intensity rather than one representing the territories of fishing communities. The layer that is missing then is not just the socio-economic (which is often absent) but also the relationship between offshore locations and the onshore communities and economies to which they are necessarily attached.

Some examples of techniques for data management

Data Atlases

A common format for presenting information on ecological and economic information is a data atlas for marine management areas.  Marine data atlases have been used for over a hundred years to display information about marine features. In the 1980s, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) produced a set of comprehensive data atlases of the exclusive economic zone of the United States of America. More recent marine data atlases have been produced for Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the USA (Gulf of Mexico).

Geodatabases, Geographic Information Systems and Decision Support Tools

A geodatabase is a database designed to store, query and manipulate geographic information and spatial data. It is also known as a spatial database.  A review of the tools used to develop geodatabases and their use through geographic information systems and spatial modelling is beyond the scope of this website, but is readily from several excellent sources of information, along with other decision support tools at:

  • The Ecosystem-based Management Tools Network (; and
  • Stelzenmüller et al., 2013. Practical tools to support marine spatial planning: A review and some prototype tools (see references at end of this Step)

Geographic information systems integrate hardware, software and data for capturing, managing, analyzing and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GISs allow us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, reports, and charts.

Since there are many user-friendly GIS software packages currently available and also many users who are untrained in cartography, one of the biggest problems is a poorly designed map. A good guidebook is Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users, that discusses the many decisions about colour, font, and symbology that must be made to create maps that effectively communicate the message intended  by the mapmaker. Poorly designed maps can convey misinformation and result in poor planning and decision-making.

Data Portals

The primary purpose of an ocean data portal is to serve as a decision support tool. Portals are typically designed so that planners, managers, and other stakeholders can have easy access to sector-specific information, and can begin to visualise and analyse how sectors may interact with one another, or with the environment. A portal also enables a number of conditions necessary for the success of an ocean planning effort. These include establishing and enhancing transparency for the process and ensuring that stakeholders and decision-makers can easily access and use a common set of baseline information. An excellent review of and links to examples of data portals is Longley-Wood, 2016.


If you compare maps showing important biological areas with maps showing areas important to human activities and discover that no spatial overlaps (conflicts or compatibilities) are apparent, you may not need a marine spatial management plan. This situation, however, is rarely the case. Usually, especially in intensely used areas, even a cursory analysis will indicate potential spatial overlaps among human activities and between human activities and important natural areas.

While these overlaps will usually be conflicts, they may indicate real or potential compatibilities. Areas designated for offshore wind farms, for example, will be incompatible with marine transportation routes. Sand and gravel extraction would similarly not be compatible with wind farms. Trawl fisheries or sand and gravel extraction can damage pipelines and cables. Fishing vessels are often obstacles in marine transport routes. On the other hand, areas designated for offshore wind farms could well be compatible with certain types of shellfish aquaculture.

Time is also a factor. A potential spatial conflict may not arise if two human uses occur in different time periods. For example, an important area  for whale watching during the summer months could be used for other uses when whales are not present.


  • Planning for marine spatial management should recognise that the marine management area typically is affected by human activities that are: (1) upstream from the marine management area, but possibly within the drainage area of the adjacent coastal area, e.g. agriculture; and (2) downstream from the marine management area, e.g. in the open ocean. Pressures on the resources of the marine management area may be greater from activities outside the marine area than from activities inside it. This fact illustrates the importance of drawing the boundaries of analysis broader than the boundaries of management (see Step 3, Organizing the process through pre-planning);
  • Planning for marine spatial management should determine the relative importance of different sources contributing to specific problems in the marine management area. Relative importance is likely to differ with respect to the type of problem, time of year, and from year to year depending on different conditions. The relative importance of sources of problems should influence the initial focus of data collection;
  • Planning for marine spatial management should consider explicitly the plans and actions of other sectors of the economy in terms of the spatial and temporal pattern of proposed development and capital investments. Activities in other sectors, e.g. energy, transport, fisheries, watershed management, could have major implications for MSP, and vice versa.
  • A common framework and time frame across sectors should be considered for making economic and demographic projections, developing spatial scenarios, and using similar analytical techniques for analyzing costs and effectiveness of different management actions. However, achieving such a common framework is difficult, since there rarely is an institution with overall responsibility for integrated planning and development of individual sectoral plans and programmes;
  • The level of sophistication of planning in the MSP process should not be more complicated than necessary. Increasing complexity can certainly increase the accuracy of results up to some level, but beyond that, diminishing returns begin. Increasing increments of complexity produce ever-smaller increments of increased accuracy. In fact, a MSP approach may become so complicated that it will just become too difficult, if not impossible, to interpret the results, so that accuracy actually decreases; and
  • MSP is a continuous activity; its process must be organised to generate information at various points in time. Therefore, there must be a continuous activity of planning to generate information for the development of management strategies that respond to changing conditions, i.e., adaptive management (see Step 10, Adapting the process).

Assessing cumulative impacts

Cumulative and interactive consequences of different human activities are largely ignored in marine plans because of the single-sector nature of current management approaches. Since most human activities interact with one another, managing each activity largely in isolation is insufficient to conserve marine ecosystems, or even to meet individual sector goals. Furthermore, some threats have direct effects on ecosystem components, e.g., with fishing over-harvest or damage to habitat caused by bottom trawling or anchors from recreational boats, while others have more indirect consequences, e.g., introduced species that compete with or prey on native species. These indirect effects in particular make detection and assessment of interactions more complex than simple cause-effect mechanisms.

Importantly, these activities may also interact with natural temporal or spatial variability in environmental conditions. Acting in concert, natural variability and human perturbations (through both direct and indirect mechanisms) decrease the ability of marine ecosystems to deliver vital products and services. These issues can make it seem daunting if not impossible to manage for cumulative and interactive impacts.

While the generic concept of cumulative impacts has been part of environmental policy for many years, few management plans move beyond recognising that there are cumulative consequences of different activities, and instead focus primarily on the consequences of each individual activity. To implement an ecosystem-based approach to marine management, clear measures of the environmental impacts of activities on ecosystem products and services should be made, and the cumulative consequences of different activities on these products and services assessed.

Such a shift in focus, however, will require explicit consideration of tradeoffs among the products and services supplied by the marine ecosystem. Management actions within various sectors will necessarily alter the mix of available products and services, and the cumulative effects of those management actions may further alter this mix. For example, coral reef loss due to climate change, water quality degradation, sedimentation, disease, and over-fishing may result in complete loss of the suite of goods and services that these systems formerly provided, such as fish production for recreational, artisanal, and aquarium purposes; pharmaceutical products; building materials; and tourism and recreational opportunities.

In other cases, the cumulative effects of various activities may substantially affect major ecosystem services not directly tied to market-based valuations, and in many cases those services are not accounted for in the usual sector-by-sector analysis. For example, activities associated with products and services such as seafood or offshore energy necessarily affect services such as coastal wetlands that provide habitat for wildlife and buffers from natural disaster. In these cases, the issue of how much supporting services can be sacrificed in order to obtain the other services is critical for policy-making. These tradeoffs are not well-articulated or handled in the current single-sector management process. Marine spatial planning based on an ecosystem approach should make tradeoffs in the provision of products and services explicit.

Modified from: Halpern, Ben S., et al., 2008. Managing for cumulative impacts in ecosystem-based management through ocean zoning.
Ocean and Coastal Management, 51, 203-211

Good practices for analyzing existing conditions

Analysing existing conditions in the marine planning area is an essential early (and continuing) task of any MSP process—but not an end in itself. Developing a data base of existing conditions is not a plan. Everyone should recognise that complete data and information for any marine region will never be available to the MSP process. Data collection should be driven by the goals and objectives of a plan.

A useful article about good practice in the data collection phase of MSP is Shucksmith et al. 2014 that summarises the data collection and mapping process used in the preparation of MSP plans in Scotland (see Key MSP Documents for the Scottish planning documents). Scotland has summarised its data in a Scottish MSP Atlas and the Marine Scotland MAPS NMPi interactive tool, has been designed to assist in the development of national and regional marine planning. The English Marine Management Organisation has created a Marine Information System, a website that provides quick and simple access to marine plan policies and supporting data and information from its marine planning evidence base and interactive map.

Data portals are currently good practice for sharing data among planners and stakeholders. Two good examples are the Northeast Ocean Data Portal website and the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal. Both are an online toolkit and resource centre that consolidates available data and enables users to visualise and analyse ocean resources and human use information such as fishing grounds, recreational areas, shipping lanes, habitat areas, and energy sites, among others. The Mid-Atlantic Data Portal Team evaluated data to be included based on five criteria: relevance for regional planning; methodological rigour; data and metadata standards; geographic extent; and currency.

Data and information collection is only one element of this important step. Decision support tools for data analysis, such as SeaSketch, an online participatory mapping programme, and Marxam with Zones that can provide zoning options in marine regions for biodiversity conservation, are also needed. Excellent critical summaries of the use of these tools can be found in Stelzenmuller et al. 2013 and Pınarbaşı et al. 2017.

Useful references:

Ban, N.C., Alidina, H.M., Ardron, J.A. (2010). Cumulative impact mapping: Advances, relevance and limitations to marine management and conservation, using Canada’s Pacific waters as a case study. Marine Policy 34 (5), 876–886.

Clarke Murray, Cathryn, Mach, Megan E., and Martone, Rebecca, G. (2014). Cumulative effects in marine ecosystems: scientific perspectives on its challenges and solutions. WWF-Canada and Center for Ocean Solutions. 60 p.

des Clers, S., Lewin, S., Edwards, D., Searle, S., Lieberknecht, L. and Murphy, D. (2008).  FisherMap. Mapping the Grounds: recording  fishermens use of the seas. Final Report. A report published for the Finding Sanctuary project.  Available at:

Curtice, C., J. Cleary, E. Shumchenia, P. Halpin (2016). Marine-Life Data Analysis Team (MDAT) Technical Report on the Methods and Development of Marine-Life Data to Support Regional Ocean Planning and Management. Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Duke University, Durham. 81 p. Available at:

Halpern, B.S., Kappel, C.V., Selkoe, K.A., Micheli, F., Ebert, C.M., Kontgis, C., Crain, C.M., Martone, R.G., Shearer, C., Teck, S.J. (2009). Mapping cumulative human impacts to California current marine ecosystems. Conserv. Lett. 2 (3), 138–148.

Lightsom, F.L., G. Gicchetti, and C. Wahle (2015).  Data categories for marine planning.  U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2015-1046., 27 p. Available at:

Longley-Wood, K., 2016. Creating and using data portals to support ocean planning. Challenges and best practices from the United States and elsewhere. Boston: Sea Plan. 27 p. Available at:

Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body (2016).  Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Assessment.  Available on-line at:

Stelzenmüller, V., J. Lee, A. South, J. Foden, S. I. Rogers, 2013b. Practical tools to support marine spatial planning: A review and some prototype tools. Marine Policy, 38: 214-227.

Washington State Ocean Caucus (2011). How we use our marine waters. Summary report of a data workshop to support coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) in Washington. October. Available at:

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!

    Download Guide

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