A central challenge for natural resource management is developing rigorous yet practical approaches for balancing the costs and benefits of diverse human uses of ecosystems. Economic theory has a long history of evaluating tradeoffs in returns from different assets to identify optimal investment strategies. There has been recent progress applying this framework to the delivery of ecosystem services in land use planning. However, despite growing national and international interest in marine spatial planning, there is a lack of parallel frameworks in the marine realm. This paper reviews an ecosystem service tradeoff analysis framework and provides a more comprehensive synthesis for how it can be applied to marine spatial planning and marine ecosystem-based management. A tradeoff analysis approach can reveal inferior management options, demonstrate the benefits of comprehensive planning for multiple, interacting services over managing single services, and identify ‘compatible’ services that provide win–win management options.