Concepts and terminology

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

– Lewis Carroll, 1832-1898, author of Through the Looking Glass, English mathematician and logician

What is marine spatial planning?

Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a practical way to create and establish a more rational organisation 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 in an open and planned way.

DEFINITION: Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a public process of analysing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives that are usually specified through a political process.

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, for example, development or preservation areas, or by specific uses, e.g., wind farms, offshore aquaculture, or sand and gravel mining.

MSP does not lead to a one-time or one-off plan. It works through a continuing, iterative process that promotes learning and adaptation over time.  The development and implementation of MSP involves a number of steps, including:

  • Establishing authority;
  • Obtaining financial support;
  • Organizing the MSP process;
  • Engaging stakeholders;
  • Analyzing existing conditions;
  • Analyzing future conditions;
  • Developing the plan;
  • Implementing the plan;
  • Evaluating performance; and
  • Adapting the 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 actions are identified later in the planning process. Analyses of existing and future conditions will change as new information is 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 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 planning. For example, MSP can provide important contextual information for marine protected area management or for fisheries management, but does not replace planning and implementation within existing sectors.

The scope and content of each of the above steps are described subsequent sections of this website.

Why do we need MSP?

Most countries already designate or zone marine space for a number of human activities such as maritime transportation, oil and gas development, offshore renewable 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 led to two major types of conflict:

  • Conflicts among human uses (user-user conflicts), for example between marine transport and offshore wind farms; and
  • Conflicts between human uses and the marine environment (user-environment conflicts), for example, between offshore oil and gas development and marine mammal feeding areas.

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, MSP is a future-oriented process. It can offer you a way to address both these types of conflict and select appropriate management actions to maintain and safeguard necessary ecosystem services.

Why are space and time important?

Some areas of the ocean are more important than others—both ecologically and economically. Species, habitats, populations, oil and gas deposits, sand and gravel deposits, and sustained winds, are all distributed in various places and at various times. Successful marine management needs planners and managers who 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 part of MSP (see Step 5, Analyzing existing conditions). 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 step of MSP (see Step 6, Analyzing future conditions).

How can MSP affect ecosystem goods and services

Marine areas or ecosystems are affected by human activities in terms of demands for the use of the resources of the area to produce desired goods and services, e.g., seafood, marine transportation, energy, and recreation. Marine ecological services, such as storm protection, waste processing, and climate regulation, are also affected by human activities.

Demands for goods and services from a marine area usually exceed its capacity to meet all of the demands simultaneously. Marine resources, e.g., fish and coral reefs, are often “common property resources” with “open” or “free” access to users. Free access often, if not usually, leads to excessive use of the resource, e.g., over-fishing, and degradation or exhaustion of the resource, e.g., marine pollution and habitat degradation. Because not all of the goods and services from marine ecosystems can be expressed in monetary terms, free markets cannot perform the allocation tasks. Some public process must be used to decide what mix of goods and services will be produced from the marine area. That process is marine spatial planning.

What are the benefits of MSP?

When developed properly, marine spatial planning can have significant economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Ecological/environmental benefits

  • Identification and protection of ecologically and biologically important areas;
  • Biodiversity objectives incorporated into planning and decision-making;
  • Identification and reduction of conflicts between human uses and nature;
  • Allocation of space for biodiversity and nature conservation;
  • Establish context for planning a network of marine protected areas; and
  • Identification and reduction of the cumulative effects of human activities on marine ecosystems.

Economic benefits

  • Greater certainty of access to desirable areas for new private sector investments, frequently amortised over 20-30 years;
  • Identification of compatible uses within the same area designated for development;
  • Reduction of conflicts between incompatible uses;
  • Improved capacity to plan for new and changing human activities, including emerging technologies and their associated effects;
  • Better safety during operation of human activities;
  • Promotion of the efficient use of resources and space; and
  • Streamlining and transparency in permit and licensing procedures.

Social benefits

  • Improved opportunities for community and citizen participation;
  • Identification of impacts of decisions on the allocation of ocean space (e.g., closure areas for certain uses, protected areas) for communities and economies onshore (e.g., employment, distribution of income);
  • Identification and improved protection of cultural heritage; and
  • Identification and preservation of social and spiritual values related to ocean use (e.g., the ocean as an open space).

Administrative benefits

  • Improved consistency and compatibility of regulatory decisions;
  • Improved consistency and efficiency of information collection, storage and retrieval, access and sharing;
  • Improved speed, quality, accountability, and transparency of decision making, and reduction of regulatory costs; and
  • Improved integration and reduced duplication of effort and its associated waste of resources.

What are the outputs of MSP?

The principal output of MSP is a comprehensive spatial management plan for a marine management area or ecosystem. Think of this plan as a “vision for the future”. It sets out priorities for the spatial use of the area and defines what these priorities mean in time and space. It specifies the management actions necessary to achieve a spatial vision. Typically, a comprehensive marine spatial management plan is general in nature, has a 10-20 year horizon, and reflects political and social priorities for the area.

The comprehensive marine spatial plan is often implemented through a zoning map, zoning regulations, and/or a permitting or licensing system.Permit decisions made within individual sectors (for example, the fisheries or tourism sector) should be based on the zoning maps and regulations and the comprehensive spatial plan.The relationship between MSP and marine zoning is further explained in Step 7, Developing the plan.


Marine spatial planning is a process that can influence where and when human activities occur in marine spaces. Therefore, when organizing and allocating human activities in the marine environment you should understand that other management actions will be needed to handle the input, process, and output specifications of human activities.

Comprehensive Marine Spatial Planning and Zoning

To understand the power of zoning, one must understand the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan is the culmination of a planning process that … presents goals and a vision for the future that guides official decision-making.
Zoning is merely one method for implementing the goals of the plan.

Having a comprehensive … plan ensures that forethought and planning precede zoning ….

The comprehensive plan is insurance that [zoning] bears a “reasonable relation between the end sought to be achieved by the regulation and the means used to achieve that end.”

Source: New York Department of State, 2015
“Zoning and the Comprehensive Plan”

How does MSP relate to other coastal or marine planning approaches?

MSP does not replace single-sector planning. Instead, it aims to provide guidance to a range of decision-makers responsible for particular sectors, activities or concerns so that they will have the means to make decisions confidently in a more comprehensive, integrated, and complementary way. In many ways MSP is similar to integrated coastal zone management. For example, both are integrated, strategic, and participatory—and both aim to maximise compatibilities among human activities among human activities and reduce conflicts both among human uses and between human uses and nature.

When coastal zone management was first developed almost 50 years ago, one definition of the “coastal zone” was “the area of land affected by the sea and the area of the sea affected by the land”. That definition was interpreted to cover the coastal plain to the edge of the continental shelf. However, the boundaries of coastal zone management have been limited in most countries to a narrow strip of coastline within a kilometre or two inland from the shoreline. Only rarely have the inland boundaries of coastal management included coastal watersheds or catchment areas. Even more rarely does coastal management extend into the territorial sea and beyond to the exclusive economic zone (see Germany for an exception).

MSP should also be closely integrated with the management of marine protected areas (MPAs). The activities of the 10-steps of MSP are relevant to the management of MPAs. Clearly the difference between MSP and the management of MPAs lies in the formulation of goals, objectives and management actions. Even in multiple-use MPAs, the primary focus should be on protection and not on the balance between protection and development. Timing is also important since in most cases MPAs will already be established in areas where MSP is being initiated. In some cases, new initiatives to establish MPAs in a marine region have been undertaken separately from an MSP initiative. This situation inevitably leads to unnecessary confusion and conflict. When possible, the integration of these two processes is good practice.

MSP focuses on the human use of marine spaces and places, and the connections between land and sea. It is the missing piece that can lead to truly integrated planning from coastal watersheds to large marine ecosystems.


Some important terms

Ecosystem-based management: An integrated approach to management that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans. The goal of ecosystem-based management is to maintain an ecosystem in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so that it can provide the goods and services humans want and need. Ecosystem-based management differs from current approaches that usually focus on a single species, sector, activity or concern; it considers the cumulative impacts of different sectors. Specifically, ecosystem-based management:

  • Emphasises the protection of ecosystem structure, functioning, and key processes;
  • Explicitly accounts for the interconnectedness within systems, recognizing the importance of interactions between many target species or key services and other non-target species;
  • Acknowledges interconnectedness among systems, such as among air, land and sea;
  • Integrates ecological, social, economic, and institutional perspectives, recognising their strong interdependences; and
  • Is place-based in focusing on a specific ecosystem and the range
    of human activities affecting it.

Marine spatial planning: The 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 are usually specified through a political process. MSP should be ecosystem-based and is an element of broader sea use management.

Ocean zoning: An effective regulatory action to implement comprehensive marine spatial management plans usually through a zoning map or maps and regulations for some or all areas of a marine management area.


Some important terms

Sea use management: Analogous to land use management in terrestrial environments, sea use management :

  • Works toward sustainable development, rather than only conservation or environmental protection, and in doing so contributes to more general social and economic objectives;
  • Provides a strategic, integrated and forward-looking framework for all uses of the sea to help achieve sustainable development, taking account of environmental as well as social and economic goals and objectives;
  • Applies an ecosystem-based approach to the planning and management of development and activities in the marine environment by safeguarding ecological processes and overall resilience to ensure the environment has the capacity to support social and economic benefits (including those benefits derived directly from ecosystems);
  • Identifies, safeguards, or where necessary and appropriate, recovers or restores important components of marine ecosystems including natural heritage and nature conservation resources; and
  • Through marine spatial planning (MSP), analyses and allocates space in a way that minimises conflicts among human activities, as well as conflicts between human activities and nature, and, where possible, maximises compatibilities among uses.

Useful references:

Ehler, Charles, and Fanny Douvere, 2007. Visions for a Sea Change: Report of the First International Workshop on Marine Spatial Planning. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Man and the Biosphere Programme. IOC Manual and Guides No. 48. Paris, UNESCO (English). 83 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!

    Download Guide

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