Step 7. Developing the plan

“A plan is a list of actions arranged in whatever sequence is thought likely to achieve an objective.”

– John Argenti, management consultant

What outputs should be delivered from this step?

  • An identification and evaluation of alternative management actions to achieve the preferred spatial scenario for the marine spatial area;
  • Identification of criteria for selecting alternative management actions; and
  • A comprehensive marine spatial management plan, including if needed, a zoning plan.


Once a preferred spatial scenario or alternative future is decided (Step 6, Analyzing future conditions), then this final phase of planning answers the question: How do we get there?

A marine spatial management plan should be developed to identify specific management actions that will produce the desired future through explicit management actions that determine the location and timing of human activities.

The marine spatial management plan is not an end in itself but a beginning toward the implementation of desired goals and objectives. The marine spatial management plan should be a statement of policy from the responsible management authority or authorities, in partnership with other key agencies that are responsible for single sectors. It should present an integrated vision of the spatial aspects of sector-specific policies in the areas of economic development, marine transport, environmental protection, energy, fisheries, and tourism. The marine spatial management plan should be closely integrated with public investment programs, should highlight the spatial (and temporal) dimension of integrated management, and should show where marine management actions fit together and where they do not.

DEFINITION. A marine spatial management plan is a comprehensive, strategic document that provides the framework and direction for decisions related to specific management actions. It should identify when, where, and how management actions will deliver desired outcomes or results (goals and objectives), especially the preferred marine spatial vision.

The marine spatial management plan guides the ecological, social, and economic development of the marine management area, including its airspace, surface area, water column, and submerged lands.

Preparing and approving the marine spatial management plan includes the following tasks:

  • Identifying alternative spatial and temporal management actions;
  • Specifying criteria for selecting marine spatial management actions;
  • Developing a zoning plan and regulations, if necessary or desired;
  • Evaluating the marine spatial management plan; and
  • Approving the marine spatial management plan.

Each of these tasks is discussed in more detail below; this list specifies what a marine spatial management plan generally should include:

  • A description of the boundaries of the MSP area, as well as a specified base year and time period of the plan;
  • The spatial management principles, goals and objectives of the plan;
  • A description of a preferred future or scenario—a graphic portrayal of the vision of the physical development and conservation of the marine management area;
  • The management actions required to achieve the preferred future or scenario;
  • An implementation plan, including a timetable for the management actions needed to implement the plan (who does what, when); and
  • Funding requirements of the comprehensive plan and a financial plan that lays out sources of funding

One purpose of the marine spatial management plan is to guide and coordinate proposals for future development and to provide a general reference for more detailed zoning, regulation, and permitting. For example, the marine spatial management plan should help prospective developers in the private sector evaluate the likelihood of gaining permission to develop marine space; a zoning plan could lay out the constraints and conditions imposed on such development.

The marine spatial management plan should provide direction for further zoning and regulations, as well as the use of other management actions, but the degree of prescription has to be dependent upon local conditions. For example, if regional and local marine management institutions are not well established or lack capacity, then the marine spatial management plan may play a primary role in guiding development until such time that more detailed zoning plans are created. In any case, the marine spatial management plan should adopt a minimalist approach concentrating on priorities, key challenges, and places where change is anticipated. There is little value in seeking to achieve full integration of sectoral plans that is clearly unachievable. The goal should be to achieve consensus on priority actions. When this is not achievable, it is important that to ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the anticipated consequences of such inaction.

In any marine spatial management area there are:

  • Many possible combinations of goods and services that can be produced over time (see Concepts and Terminology for examples of goods and services from marine areas); and
  • Many possible spatial and temporal management actions that can deliver the desired goods and services.

The number of possible combinations of management actions can be very large. It is not possible, nor is it necessary, to analyze all possibilities. In most situations, existing knowledge will reduce the number of options. Or the political process may set constraints. For example, a decision might be made to establish a large marine protected area, or a network of MPAs that might limit the production of other goods and services from the area.


A very important objective of planning is to expand the range of alternatives considered in formulating management actions. Often the goals of MSP have not been achieved, or have been achieved at substantially larger costs than would have been necessary, because the planners and decision makers limited themselves to the consideration of only a few management actions, e.g., zoning.


Management actions

Once a desired future spatial scenario (Step 6, Analyzing future conditions) has been identified, then specific spatial management actions will have to be identified that can lead to that future vision.

DEFINITION. A spatial (and temporal) management action is a means of delivering desired goods and services—specified through goals and objectives—from a marine management area. It specifies how, where, and when human activities should occur.

Spatial management actions only influence the spatial (and/or temporal) distribution of human activities. Other types of management actions must also be used in the management of human activities including: (1) input actions; (2) process actions; and (3) output actions.

Examples of marine management actions

Input actions: Actions that specify inputs to human activities in a marine management area

  • Limitations on fishing activity and capacity, e.g., number of vessels allowed to fish;
  • Limitations on shipping vessel size or horsepower;
  • Limitations on the amount of fertilizer and pesticides applied to agricultural lands.

Process actions: Actions that specify the nature of the production process of human activities in a marine management area

  • Specification of fishing gear type or mesh size;
  • Specification of “best available technology” or “best environmental practice”;
  • Specification of the level of water treatment technology.

Output actions: Actions that specify the output of human activities in a marine management area

  • Limitations of the amount of pollutants discharged to a marine area;
  • Limitations on allowable catch and/or by-catch;
  • Tonnage limitations on sand and gravel extraction from the marine area.

Spatial and temporal actions: Actions that specify where and when human activities can occur

  • Specification of areas closed to fishing or other human activities;
  • Designation of precautionary areas or security zones;
  • Designation of marine protected areas;
  • Zoning of areas for specific uses, e.g., defense, wind farms, mineral mining, waste disposal, marine transport, aquaculture;
  • Zoning of areas by objective, e.g., development areas, conservation areas, multiple-use areas.

Experience in various countries shows that marine spatial planning is most often implemented through existing management authorities, responsible for a single sector, concern, or activity (see Step 1, Establishing authority). Therefore, most spatial management actions are likely to be directed toward single sectors. Examples of spatial management actions by individual sectors can be found below.

A management action that works: a big ecological benefit at a small cost

In Massachusetts Bay in 2007, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US Coast Guard and stakeholders worked with the International Maritime Organisation to shift the shipping lanes of Boston Harbour to avoid high concentrations of endangered humpback, right and other endangered whales. The shift cut the risk of colliding with the right whales by an estimated 58% and other whales by over 80%, provided a safer environment for ships, and increased travel times of shipping by only 10–22 minutes. Compliance with the new shipping lanes is almost 100%.

A real ecological benefit was achieved from a MSP management action at very little cost to marine shipping. NOAA Fisheries estimates that Americans are willing to pay $4.38 billion annually for the recovery of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

More recently, Norway has also shifted its shipping lanes further offshore to reduce the risk of potential oil discharges, either spills or operational discharges, reaching sensitive coastal waters and habitats.


One fundamental question of a marine spatial management plan is: How can human activities be induced to do what is necessary to deliver the desired mix of goods and services from the marine management area as reflected in the goals and objectives of the management plan?

You will need incentives to implement the management actions to achieve the desired results.

DEFINITIONIncentives are the positive and negative means to induce action to implement management actions.

There are two types of incentives: (1) economic incentives; and (2) non-economic incentives.

Economic incentives include grants from national and/or state or provincial governments, surcharges on production inputs such as fertilizer and energy, pollution charges, user fees, access fees, license fees, right-of-way fees, development fees, and permit fees.

Non-economic incentives can be categorized as:

  • regulatory;
  • technical assistance;
  • public education and information; and
  • enforcement sanctions.

Regulations specify, e.g., limitations on fishing activity and capacity, limitations on energy use, limitations on the amount of fertilisers and pesticides applied to agriculture lands, specification of fishing gear, specification of waste treatment technology, pollution discharge limits, limits on allowable catch, limitations on sand and gravel extraction.

Technical assistance involves the provision of information on management actions, the costs of reducing habitat loss, and the costs of adaptation to sea level changes, etc.

Public education and information encompasses such aspects as the provision of information to the public on: pollution discharges or environmental damage by individual marine operations; various options being considered in relation to management of marine areas; identification of good or bad behaviour, e.g., the “worst polluters of the year”.

Enforcement sanctions include civil actions, such as administrative procedures, fines, cancelling of licenses or permits, injunctions precluding certain actions, cancelling the possibility of doing business with governmental agencies; and criminal penalties, such as jail sentences (See also Step 8, Implementing the plan).

Institutional arrangements

Finally, MSP involves multiple human activities and typically involves multiple management agencies, possibly at different levels of government. Crucial with respect to the institutional arrangement for management in a marine area are: (1) designation of what institution or institutions does which tasks of spatial management; and (2) how the institutions responsible for carrying out the tasks are integrated.

The problem of institutional integration relates not only to the marine management area, but also to agencies in areas “upstream” from the marine area, i.e., the coastal zone and coastal watersheds.

DEFINITION. An institutional arrangement specifies what institutions have the authority to apply selected incentives to implement specified management actions. It allocates responsibilities for the relevant tasks of MSP to public agencies, and in some cases between public agencies and private entities.

Management actions, incentives, and institutional arrangements should be specified clearly within the marine spatial management plan, or in an accompanying implementation plan (See plans from the Netherlands or Abu Dhabi in Key MSP Documents).


Just as there will be differences among the stakeholders about the relative importance of problems or objectives to be achieved through marine spatial planning, there may be differences in their views of the criteria to be used in evaluating alternative management actions that will represent the substance of the management plan.

The Table below lists some criteria, various combinations of which can used in evaluating management actions. Not only must a decision be made about which criteria are to be used, but also the decision must be made about what “weights” (or level of importance) to assign to the various criteria selected. Again, it should be emphasised that the decisions about both criteria and their weights may well change, in the views of the stakeholders, during the course of planning.



Use-use conflicts

Reduction in conflicts among users

Use-nature conflicts

Reduction in conflicts between uses and the marine environment

Physical, chemical and biological effects over time

Changes in water quality in various sub-areas of the marine management area
Effects of changes in ambient water quality or physical disturbance on the species or users of the ecosystem services of the marine area
Effects on biologically or ecologically significant areas
Species or ecosystem effects external to the marine management area

Economic effects and their distribution

Direct benefits, e.g., value of goods and services produced and the distribution of benefits
Direct costs of goods and services produced and the distribution of costs
Administrative costs
Indirect benefits associated with goods and services produced
Indirect costs associated with goods and services produced

Administrative considerations

Effects on the resources of implementing agencies
Retention of effectiveness under changing conditions
Ease of modification under changing conditions

Timing considerations

Years before the production of goods and services begins
Years before adverse or positive effects on water quality begin to be measured
Time required to establish incentives and institutional arrangement for implementation

Political considerations

Priority in relation to implementation of management actions in other public management areas
Degree to which the management plan can be executed by a single agency rather than by multiple agencies
Impact on intergovernmental relations
Acceptability by the public
Legal issues

Accuracy/uncertainty of estimates used in planning

Physical, chemical, biological and ecological effects
Economic benefits, direct and indirect and their distribution
Economic costs, direct and indirect and their distribution

Resource use effects

Amount of ocean space required
Cumulative effects on marine environment

Feasibility of financing

Financial requirements for implementation
Access to sources of funding, e.g., user charges, grants, loans
Ability to pay the costs of implementation


While many marine plans do not have a zoning plan and regulations, they are often the principal management action used to implement comprehensive marine spatial management plans. While zoning is one of the central elements of MSP, contrary to public perception, the two are not the same (see Agardy 2010 and the Comprehensive MSP and Zoning distinction in the Concepts and Terminology page of this website). The Box below identifies the purposes of a zoning plan. A zoning plan is often included in the management plan (See, for example, the Netherlands National Waterplan for the North Sea that includes a zoning plan). Key elements of an MSP zoning approach include:

  • locating and designing zones (areas) based on the underlying topography, oceanography, and distribution of biotic communities;
  • designing systems of permits, licenses, and use rules within each zone;
  • establishing compliance mechanisms; and
  • creating programs to monitor, to review, and to adapt the zoning system.

DEFINITION. A zoning plan (map and regulations) is a management action through which the purpose for each sub-area(s) of a marine management area can be used.

Just as with most other steps in this guide, no one type of zoning will fit all situations. Zoning is often in the form of a legal document. However, the format of a zoning plan will depend on its legislative basis and on the procedures of the agencies responsible for implementing the plan. It could be in the form of a locally adopted municipal plan or a nationally-endorsed legal instrument, as required by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).


The final zoning product in a large multiple use marine management area will be the result of compromise, accommodating a range of needs, interests, and political requirements. Similar to comprehensive planning, zoning is not a simple task.

Purposes of a zoning plan

  • Provide protection for biologically and ecologically important habitats, ecosystems, and ecological processes;
  • Separate conflicting human activities or to combine compatible human activities;
  • To protect the natural values of the marine management area while allowing reasonable human uses of the area;
  • To allocate areas for reasonable human uses while minimizing the effects of these human uses on each other and nature; and
  • To preserve some areas of the marine managed area in their natural state undisturbed by humans except for scientific or educational purposes.

The zoning plans of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are required by national legislation to define the purposes for which areas of the park may be used or entered, i.e., each zone has a specified objective. They allow reasonable activities, such as tourism, fishing, boating, diving and research to occur in specific areas, but also separate conflicting uses by the various zones and determine the appropriateness of various extractive activities. A multiple-use zoning approach provides high levels of protection for specific areas while allowing a range of reasonable uses, including certain extractive activities, to continue in other zones within the park. Many aspects of GBRMP zoning, such as allowing, but separating, conflicting uses, have proven very successful. Experience, however, has also shown that some features of zoning have needed to be refined; what works in the GBRMP may not necessarily work elsewhere and may also need to be modified.

Innovative proposals to zone marine spaces vertically and the fourth dimension—time—and its implications for marine zoning are discussed below.

The third dimension: vertical zoning

In the three-dimensional marine environment, some management agencies have introduced “vertical zoning”, e.g., different regulations within the water column than those allowed to occur on the seafloor. While this may be one way of aiming for increased benthic protection while allowing pelagic fishing, it does create challenges for enforcement purposes, and vertical zonation is not easily shown within the existing two-dimensional databases or on maps.

More importantly, the linkages between benthic and pelagic systems and species may not be well known, so the exploitation of the surface or mid-water fisheries may have unknown ecological impacts on the underlying benthic communities. Vertical zoning may also be appropriate in some situations where, for example, certain benthic species or habitats require absolute protection while transportation or recreational uses continue at or near the surface of the water column. To apply vertical zoning appropriately, it is crucial to understand when and where interactions occur among benthic and pelagic communities.

NOAA has developed preliminary guidelines on the limits of vertical zoning including:

  • Vertical zoning is generally not appropriate to consider in spawning aggregation sites because these are areas where pelagic species congregate in large numbers in a spatially and temporally predictable fashion;
  • Vertical zoning is generally not appropriate to consider in depths less than 50-100 meters in coral reef and temperate reef ecosystems because at these shallow depths there is little separation between benthic and pelagic systems;
  • Areas beyond the shelf edge are often appropriate for vertical zoning since depths often exceed 100 meters; and
  • Vertical zoning is generally not appropriate to consider around atolls or shallow seamounts.

The fourth dimension: temporal zoning

Some marine areas, such as fish spawning aggregation areas or pelagic migratory routes, are critically important and the species concerned are extremely vulnerable at specific and predictable times of the year, while for the rest of the year they do not need any greater management than surrounding areas. The Irish Sea Cod Box, for example, is designed to conserve cod stocks in the Irish Sea by restricting fishing activities during the spawning period.

The European Union has encouraged the establishment of such conservation ‘boxes’ within which seasonal, full-time, temporary or permanent controls are placed on fishing methods and/or access. Temporal zoning could prohibit visitor access to, or commercial fishing near, a particular fish spawning ground, sea bird colony, or whale calving area during the reproductive season but allow it throughout other, less critical periods. Depending on the factors involved, the time span may be long term, seasonal, cyclical or even diurnal.

More recently, the effects of climate change, including spatial and temporal shifts of marine ecosystems, populations, and habitats, have raised questions about the long-term viability of fixed boundaries of marine protected areas.


Most countries, especially Western Europe, now require a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) or, in the USA, a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) of comprehensive management plans and public investment programs. The European Directive (2001/42/EC) on the Assessment of the Effects of Certain Plans and Programmes on the Environment, for example, requires an environmental assessment for certain plans and programs at various levels (national, regional and local) that are likely to have significant effects on the environment. Canada, parts of the USA, and New Zealand also require SEAs.

An environmental assessment, according to the European Union (EU) SEA Directive, was carried out in connection with the establishment of the Spatial Plan for the North Sea and the Baltic Sea in Germany. Its purpose was to provide for a high level of protection of the environment and to contribute to the integration of environmental considerations into the preparation and adoption of plans and programs with a view to promoting sustainable development. The environmental report focused on the description and evaluation of any substantial impacts on the marine environment that are likely to be caused by the implementation of the marine spatial plan, using the existing description and assessment of the marine environmental status as a basis.

At the same time, management actions are described by which any substantial impact on the marine environment was to be prevented, reduced, or compensated as best possible. Besides giving a brief explanation of the reasons for choosing the alternatives reviewed, the report listed planned measures by which the substantial impacts of an implemented marine spatial plan was to be monitored, as well as the results of compatibility assessments regarding Natura 2000 areas and bird sanctuaries. The findings in the SEA concerning the importance of individual areas of conservation interest have been taken into account in deciding on the designation of areas for particular uses, especially offshore wind energy production. Evaluating the spatial management plan should also include assessment of cumulative effects.


The final task in this phase of planning is approval of the spatial management plan through a formal adoption process, a task that will be different in every management context. For example, political calendar requirements for public hearings on the plan will vary from place to place. Any new legislation required to implement the plan may take a year or two, at minimum. However, the task will usually entail at least the following considerations that may take a considerable amount of time to carry out:

  • Formal adoption of the spatial management plan, its goals and objectives, rules, and spatial management measures (including zoning plans and regulations, as appropriate);
  • Approving any new changes in management boundaries, if necessary;
  • Establishing any new institutional arrangement, e.g., an interagency coordinating council or inter-sectoral coordinating bodies, if proposed;
  • Approving any new staffing or organisational changes, if necessary; and
  • Approving the allocation of new funds to implement, monitor and evaluate the marine spatial plan, if proposed.


  • Because of the dynamic context of MSP, the focus of the planning process should be on “planning” rather than on producing a “plan.” Continuous planning is necessary;
  • Planners should always keep in mind that their function is to generate information for decisions makers, not to make decisions;
  • Establishing and maintaining continuous planning for marine spatial management will not be achieved unless all stakeholders, including decision-makers, politicians, resource managers, bureaucrats, and the general public understand the net benefits of planning; and
  • Planning without implementation is sterile; implementation without planning is a recipe for failure.

Putting it all together in the Netherlands

The review of the management plan for the Netherlands part of the North Sea was carried out in three phases: pre-planning, analysis and final planning. During the pre-planning phase, through workshops the project team discussed with representatives of the main stakeholders of each sub-area (6 sub-areas in total) each of their interests in that area and what conflicts or opportunities may arise from that interest and approval. Different estimates of the future were used in these sessions, thoroughly prepared by both the project team and the stakeholders.

After the first workshop, more focused analytical expert sessions were held to discuss further the identified potential conflicts and opportunities. The results of these expert sessions were reported back a few months later to another planning workshop in which the proposed plans were discussed as well as subjects such as a network of protected areas and fisheries, the assessment framework, and possible room for experiments. Meanwhile all of the stakeholder representatives were kept informed about the process and its steps and challenged to deliver additional consultations through consultative meetings, a website, and newsletters.

Source: Leo de Vrees, personal communication.

Good practices in developing a marine spatial management plan

The principal output of MSP is a marine spatial management plan—a comprehensive, integrated and strategic document that provides the framework and direction for decisions related to specific management actions taken to achieve specific objectives. It should identify when, where, and how specific management actions will deliver desired outcomes or results, especially the preferred marine spatial vision. The management plan pulls together the outputs of the previous steps (principles, goals, objectives, indicators) into a roadmap of “how do we get there?”—where “there” is the desired spatial vision.

About 22 countries have completed a national or regional marine management plan as of mid-2018—eight are countries of the European Union. In some cases where countries have taken a regional approach to MSP more than one plan has been completed, .e.g., China has completed 11 provincial and municipal plans covering its territorial sea and a national plan, Australia has completed five plans for its bioregions and a widely known zoning plan for its Great Barrier Reef, Coastal First Nations has completed four plans for the west coast of British Columbia in Canada, Norway has management plans for its Barents, Norwegian, and North seas, Germany has completed two plans for its EEZs in the North and Baltic seas, and so on, Over 60 management plans have been completed, 11 at the national level. Most of the completed plans can be found in the Key MSP Documents section of this website. Not all have been implemented.

Plans that have most of the elements of good practice in the preparation and completion of marine spatial management plans include the Netherlands (2005, 2009, 2014), Belgium (2014), and Norway for the Barents Sea (2006, 2011, 2015), Norwegian Sea (2009, 2017), and North Sea (2013)—all available in the Key MSP Documents.

Useful references:

Many excellent examples of Marine/Maritime Spatial Plans have been published: See Key MSP Documents on this website.

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

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.
Start typing to see posts you are looking for.
  • * indicates required

    MSPglobal will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.

    Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

    You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us or by contacting us at

    We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.

    We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices here.