Step 3. Organizing the MSP process

“Before beginning, plan carefully.”

– Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BCE, Roman statesman

What outputs should be delivered from this step?

  • Organization of a marine spatial planning team with the desired skills;
  • A work plan that identifies key work products and resources required to complete the outputs of planning on time;
  • Defined boundaries and time frame for analysis and management;
  • A time frame for the revision of management plans;
  • A set of principles to guide development of the marine spatial management plan; and
  • A set of general goals and SMART objectives for the marine management area.


MSP is likely to be most successful in achieving expected or desired outcomes/results when conducted on the basis of an “objective-based approach”. A SMART objective-based approach to MSP is organised around a hierarchy of goals, objectives, management actions, and indicators that evaluate the performance of management actions in achieving those goals and objectives. Ideally, the goals and objectives will be derived from particular problems or conflicts you encounter in your marine area (see Step 1, Establishing authority), and will reflect a set of MSP principles (see Task 4 of this Step) that guide the process. An objective-based approach to MSP implies that analysis conducted during the planning phases (see Steps 5, 6, and 7 of this guide) is related to the MSP goals and objectives. Also the identification of management actions during the management plan development phase (Step 7, Developing the plan) and an overall plan for implementing such management actions (Step 8, Implementing the plan) are all carried out to achieve the goals and objectives.

This step organises the process for objective-based MSP. It is referred to as “pre-planning” since it sets the stage for the actual planning phases (Step 5, Analyzing existing conditions and Step 6, Analyzing future conditions). To fulfill this function, pre-planning should develop:

  • A marine spatial planning team;
  • A work plan, including a schedule of tasks;
  • Specification of a base year;
  • The boundaries and time-frame for planning;
  • A first draft of a set of principles;
  • A first draft of a set of general goals;
  • A first draft of a set of clear and measurable objectives; and
  • An assessment of the risks of what might go wrong during the planning process and possible contingencies.

Regardless of the context, pre-planning is a necessary and critical part of any MSP process.


A key task is to organize the marine spatial planning team. While it is important to have a multi-disciplinary team comprised of biologists, ecologists, geographers, economists, and planners with disciplinary knowledge, it is as important to have most of the desirable skills such as those found in the table below. Not all of these skills have to be within the MSP team, but access to them is important. Some can be obtained from other governmental agencies or ministries, from the scientific community, from non-governmental organizations, or consultants. Incentives to obtain these skills should be identified in the next task when a work plan is developed.


Resources for MSP, including people and time, will usually be limited with respect to producing the required information for planning, developing and implementing the spatial plan, and evaluating whether your management actions are changing the behaviour of human activities toward the desired outcomes. Therefore, it’s essential to develop a work plan that specifies what parts of the process should be done by whom, by what time, at what costs, and how the various parts relate to each other. Below is an overview of the actions that are typically part of developing a work plan.

Actions to develop a work plan

  • List the main activities needed to develop the work plan;
  • Break each activity down into manageable tasks, i.e. a task that can be managed by an individual or group and is easy to visualise in terms of resources required and the time it will take to complete. However, be careful, a common mistake is to break the activities into too many small components;
  • Awareness of what has worked and what has not in MSP practice around the world over the past decade;
  • Choose appropriate time periods for specifying when work activities will take place (by week, month, quarter);
  • Clarify the sequence and relationships between tasks (Does another task have to be completed before another task can be started? Can two tasks be carried out at the same time?);
  • Estimate the start time and duration of each task. This may be represented as a line or bar on a chart:
    • 1) Be careful to include all essential activities and tasks;
    • 2) Keep in mind the workload on individuals;
    • 3) Identify where additional assistance may be needed; and
    • 4) Be realistic about how long a task will take;
  • Identify key events (milestones) to help monitor progress. These are dates by which a task will be completed; and
  • Assign responsibilities for tasks with the various members of the MSP team.


Action 1. Defining boundaries

When defining the boundaries for your marine area, it is important to recognise two different types:

  • Boundaries for management; and
  • Boundaries for analysis.

The area for which you develop MSP is usually designated through a political process that, explicitly or implicitly, is to be managed as a single unit, e.g., the entire exclusive economic zone (Germany or The Netherlands), the marine waters of a specific state (California or Massachusetts) or bio-region (South-west Marine Bioregion of Australia).

Typically, the management boundaries of the marine area will not coincide with the boundaries of a single ecosystem, because often a number of ecosystems of varying sizes exist within, and may extend beyond, the designated management area. At the same time, the boundaries will probably coincide with only some of the areas from which demands are imposed on the resources of the marine management area for which you develop MSP. Finally, the boundaries are not likely to delimit the influences of natural processes that are external to the designated marine management area, such as larval dispersion, sediment transport, and atmospheric deposition of nutrients.

Therefore, the boundaries for analysis for MSP often will not (and do not have to) coincide with the boundaries for management. On the contrary, defining boundaries for analysis (e.g., for planning) broader than the boundaries for management (e.g., for implementation) will enable you to identify sources of influence (e.g., sources of pollution) that have an effect in your management area and ultimately include the authorities or institutions responsible for those sources in the implementation of your marine spatial plan.

An example of good practice of defining “boundaries for analysis” is the State of Rhode Island Special Area Management Plan (2010, see Key MSP Documents). Even though the state had jurisdiction only within three nautical miles (nm) of the coast, the “Ocean Study Area” planning boundary was extended to 20 nm.

Action 2. Defining the time frame

In addition to establishing boundaries, it is essential to define a time frame for your MSP initiative. The time frame consists of two parts:

Often the time frame will have to coincide with other national planning periods for planning, e.g., Viet Nam has a five-year economic planning cycle to which other plans, including marine spatial plans, have to conform.


MSP should be guided by a set of principles that:

The Box below provides some examples of MSP principles. Principles can be derived from a number of sources, including international treaties and agreements, national policy and legislation, or examples of good practice. It is important to remember that principles do not stand by themselves, but should be reflected throughout the MSP process, and in particular, in the goals and objectives you identify later. Numerous organisations and institutions have already defined principles for MSP. They are very diverse, and often represent a thin line between principles and goals.

DEFINITION. A principle is a basic or essential quality determining the nature and characteristics of the MSP process; principles should reflect the results (outcomes) to be achieved through MSP.

Examples of MSP practices

Ecosystem integrity principle The principle implies a primary focus on maintaining ecosystem structure and functioning within a marine management area. It includes the recognition that ecosystems are dynamic, changing and sometimes poorly understood (therefore requiring precautionary planning and decision-making).
Integration principle Working in sectoral and institutional compartments or “silos” is often an efficient way to manage, but it creates significant costs of lack of coordination that should be identified and addressed. MSP can play a critical role in facilitating coherence and integration. Integration among levels of government can help create complementary and mutually reinforcing decisions and actions.
Public trust principle This principle implies that marine resources, including marine space, belong to the people and are held in trust by the government for its people and future generations. Marine space should be managed as a “commons”, i.e., as part of the public domain, not owned exclusively or to be benefited by any one group or private interest.
Transparency principle This principle suggests that the processes used to make decisions should be easily understood by the public, allow citizens to see how decisions are made, how resources have been allocated, and how decisions have been reached that affect their lives.
Precautionary principle This principle suggests that if a decision could cause severe or irreversible harm to society or the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who advocate taking the action.
Polluter-pays principle The costs of pollution or damage to the environment should be paid by the responsible party.


Specifying MSP goals and objectives is essential to help you focus and tailor your MSP efforts toward achieving results. Typically, your goals and objectives should be derived from the problems and conflicts identified in Step 1, Establishing authority, of this guide.Despite what is often assumed, goals and objectives are different from one another.

Differences between goals and objectives include:

  • Goals are broad; objectives are narrow;
  • Goals are general intentions; objectives are precise;
  • Goals are intangible; objectives are tangible;
  • Goals are abstract; objectives are concrete;
  • Goals can’t be measured; objectives can be measured.

DEFINITION. A goal is a statement of general direction or intent. Goals are high-level statements of the desired outcomes that you hope to achieve. Goals provide the umbrella for development of all other objectives and reflect the principles upon which subsequent objectives are based.

Examples of MSP goals include:

  • Conserve or protect marine resources;
  • Conserve ecological structure—at all levels of biological organization—to maintain biodiversity and natural resilience of the marine management area;
  • Protect ecologically valuable areas;
  • Restore degraded areas;
  • Ensure sustainability of economic uses of marine space;
  • Promote appropriate uses of marine space;
  • Reduce and resolve conflicts among current and future human activities;
  • Reduce and resolve conflicts between current and future human activities and nature; and
  • Ensure economic return to the public from the use of ocean space.

Blue Growth can be an MSP goal

With the framework and terminology of this MSP guide, “Blue Growth” is a possible goal (and an outcome) of MSP. No widely-recognized definition of Blue Growth or a Blue Economy exists. The roots of the blue growth concept can be traced back to the initial discussions of sustainable development and “Green Growth” in the 1970s at the first UN conference on sustainable development in Stockholm and second in Rio in 1992, and the third in Johannesburg in 2002, and Rio+20 in 2012. A group of small island developing states (SIDS) emphasized the importance of the “blue economy” and “blue growth”. Since the Rio+20 conference, the blue growth concept has been widely used and has become important in marine resource development in many countries, regionally as well as internationally (Eikeset et al. 2018). For example, in 2012 the European Commission (EC) formulated its Blue Growth strategy to harness the potential of Europe’s oceans, seas and coasts for growth and jobs. The goal of the Blue Growth strategy was to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and employment opportunities in the maritime community of Europe. In 2017 the EC launched a new €14.5 million investment initiative to further promote sustainable blue growth across the EU. The FAO launched its Blue Growth initiative in 2013. The Intelligence Unit of The Economist magazine developed a working definition for the 2015 World Ocean Summit: “A sustainable ocean economy emerges when economic activity is in balance with the long-term capacity of ocean ecosystems to support this activity and remain resilient and healthy.”

The government of the Seychelles has embraced the concept of a “Blue Economy” as a means to achieve sustainable economic development around an ocean-based economy. The government has established a dedicated agency (Ministry of Finance, Trade, and the Blue Economy) to oversee completion and implementation of a Blue Economy Roadmap for the Seychelles, a transition to a sustainable ocean-based economy in the Seychelles. In the Seychelles the concept refers to “those economic activities that directly or indirectly take place in the ocean and coastal areas, use outputs from the ocean, and place ‘goods and services’ into ocean activities, as well as the contribution of those activities to economic growth, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing.” The “Blue Economy” in the Seychelles shifts the focus from the status quo where oceans have been viewed as a means of free resource extraction and an unlimited sink for the disposal of waste to one where the value of ocean services are included in decision- making and where the benefits are shared more equitably for all Seychellois. The government’s goals include economic diversification, food security, sustainable management of the marine environment, and the creation of jobs, especially high-value jobs. MSP is an integral part of the Blue Economy Roadmap in the Seychelles.


“Management by objectives works, if you first think through your objectives. Ninety percent of the time you haven’t.”

– Peter Drucker, 1909-2005, American management author and consultant

Once you have drafted goals for your marine spatial plan, it’s time to think about objectives and management actions that you will need to accomplish them.

DEFINITION. An objective is a statement of desired outcomes or observable behavioural changes that represent the achievement of a goal.

Why are measurable objectives important?

Measurable objectives play a critical role in evaluating performance, reducing uncertainty, and improving MSP over time. Because management objectives are used to guide decisions in managing human activities in marine areas, they should be more specific than “broad brush” statements or overall management purposes. For example, generic statements such as “maintain marine biodiversity” or “improve water quality” are general statements (goals) about why management has been undertaken, not measurable objectives that can help guide decision-making.

Objectives are derived from goals and are the “stepping stones” toward the achievement of goals. Goals can have more than one objective. For example, a goal of maintaining marine biodiversity could have objectives related to both species, including those that are threatened or endangered, and habitats.

Goals are aspirational; objectives are operational. Goals are qualitative; objectives should be quantitative to the extent possible. Good objectives are are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, i.e., SMART.

Characteristics of SMART objectives


Is the objective concrete, detailed, focused, and well-defined? Does the objective define an outcome?


Can we measure what we want to do? Can the objective be expressed as a quantity?


Can the objective be attained with a reasonable amount of effort and resources? Can we get it done? Do we have or
can we get the resources to attain the objective?


Will this objective lead to a desired goal? Does sufficient knowledge, authority
and capability exist?


When will we accomplish the objective? Is a finish and start date clearly defined?

Ideally, MSP objectives should have the characteristics identified in the list below. Monitoring and evaluating progress toward the achievement of desired outcomes can only be measured when objectives are specified in this manner. Often objectives will be preliminary and indicative when you draft them for the first time, and more specific when re-examined later in the MSP process (See Step 7, Developing the plan and Step 9, Evaluating performance).

What are some examples of SMART objectives?

  • Protect 90% of essential habitat for diving birds by 2018;
  • Ensure that adequate and appropriate marine space is available to produce 25% of energy needs from offshore sources by 2020;
  • Implement a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012; and
  • Reduce the time required to make decisions on marine construction permits by 50% by 2015.

Are there examples of SMART objectives being used in MSP practice?

Well-specified and measurable objectives, i.e., SMART, are few and far between in MSP practice. However, a few examples exist. Scotland, for example, has several SMART objectives for aquaculture in its draft marine plan:

  • By 2020, increase the sustainable production of marine finfish at a rate of 4% per year to achieve a 50% increase in current production;
  • By 2020, increase the sustainable freshwater production of juvenile salmon and trout by 50%; and
  • By 2020, increase the sustainable production of shellfish, mussels especially, by at least 100%.

The United Kingdom is legally committed to delivering 15% of its energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. Its Climate Change Act requires the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 despite an increase in electricity demand of between 30-100% by 2050.

Under Germany’s Renewable Energy Law, by 2020, 10,000 megawatts (the output of 10 nuclear power plants) will be connected to the grid and the share of renewable energies in the German electricity mix will move from 12% to 20%. Germany has opened up 20 areas in the North and Baltic seas for the construction of wind farms to achieve this objective.

Tips for writing SMART objectives

These ideas may seem simple, but often it’s the simple things that get lost or overlooked.
  • Make sure you sort out the differences between goals and objectives; specify as many objectives as you think you will need to meet each goal;
  • You don’t have to follow the SMART order; usually it will work best to begin with “Measurable” (how can you measure what you want to achieve?); “Measurable” is the most important consideration. What evidence will you use to define success?
  • “Achievable” is linked to measurable. There’s no point in defining an outcome you know you can’t realise, or one where you can’t tell if or when you’ve finished it. How can you decide if it’s achievable? Do you have the necessary resources to get it done? These are important questions;
  • The devil is in the details. Does everyone involved understand your objectives? Are they free of jargon? Have you defined your terms? Have you used simple language?
  • “Timely” means setting deadlines, or your objectives will not be measurable;
  • Specifying SMART objectives is a difficult task. But it will be worth it. You will actually know you have accomplished something.

Adapted from: Andrew Bell, “Ten Steps to SMART Objectives”

Objectives should be written in an active tense and use strong verbs like deliver, conduct, and produce, rather than learn, understand, encourage. Objectives can help focus the plan on what matters—real results or outcomes.


Any pre-planning should include an assessment of the risks of what could go wrong during the planning process. Questions to consider include what could delay or undermine key steps and tasks in the MSP process, what is the critical path among steps that should be taken, and what contingency measures might be available to address identified risks?

One example would be what if stakeholders cannot agree on a common set of goals and objectives or could not do so during an agreed period of time? In some cases this situation could be pre-empted by narrowing the range of issues, and therefore stakeholders, addressed in the plan, particularly around contentious issues. For instance, in Massachusetts fisheries is explicitly excluded from the plan being produced (see the Massachusetts Ocean Act). While this may seem an attractive option, it raises a wider and longer term risk that the resulting marine spatial plan is neither comprehensive nor integrated. Furthermore, the issues of concern will need to be addressed anyway at some point.

Other foreseeable risks might include specific events that change the context of the MSP process. In Norway, for example, a general election was held in September 2009. The management plan for the Norwegian sea was therefore pushed through the approval process at a much faster pace than the previous Barents Sea plan in order to be presented prior to the election. As a result, it was decided that the impact assessment stage would be undertaken more quickly than would normally be the case. This reduced the time for thorough quality control and public consultation.

Good practices in organizing the MSP process

Once a MSP team has been organised, don’t jump into data collection immediately before completing some necessary preparatory work. Putting together an overall work plan with tasks, schedule (has a deadline for developing the plan been specified through legislation or policy?), and initial allocation of resources should be a priority—the work plan will change as the planning process evolves. Most MSP initiatives that are carried to the management plan development phase have benefited from a solid work plan.

Identifying the planning boundaries and time horizon is an important early task. For data collection and analysis purposes, the planning boundary should be beyond the administrative boundary of the plan. In preparing its original “territorial sea” plan in 1990, the state of Oregon (USA) identified an “ocean stewardship area” extending 24-65 miles offshore even though the state’s jurisdiction only extended to three nautical miles. The state of Rhode Island (USA) also drew its “study area” offshore boundary at 20 nm to include waters under national jurisdiction as well as state waters.

Mexico (Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California) and Angola, Namibia, and South Africa (Benguela Current) have MSP initiatives with planning boundaries at the scale of large marine ecosystems.

Most importantly, pre-planning should include the initial drafting of principles, goals and objectives by the MSP team. While this draft information should be introduced to stakeholders early in the planning process (when they will undoubtedly be substantially modified and redrafted) it is critical for stakeholders to understand the differences among these ideas. A special effort should be made to define SMART planning objectives, i.e., specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. An example of good practice in specifying SMART objectives can be found in the Integrated Management Plan for the North Sea 2015 of The Netherlands and its two revisions.

Too often MSP efforts go no further than identifying general goals (sometimes characterized as “objectives”) without defining objectives that are at minimum specific, measurable, and time-bound. In some MSP initiatives, no goals or objectives are identified. Without specific objectives that help answer a fundamental planning question, “where do we want to be?”, the process will run into problems in identifying management actions and developing the final management plan. Without measurable and time-bound objectives, measuring the “success” of individual management actions and the overall plan will not be possible. Unfortunately, this is frequently the case in practice.

Useful references:

Bell, Andrew, updated. Ten steps to SMART objectives. Available at: %20objectives.pdf

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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