Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management


Title: Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management
Publication Date:
May 01, 2009
Document Number: IOC/2009/MG/53
Pages: 98

Document Access

Website: External Link
Attachment: Access File
(2 MB)


Ehler, C.; Douvere, F. (2009). Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management. Report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). pp 98.

What is the purpose of this guide?


During recent years, marine spatial planning (MSP) has been the focus of considerable interest throughout the world, particularly in heavily used marine areas. MSP offers countries an operational framework to maintain the value of their marine biodiversity while at the same time allowing sustainable use of the economic potential of their oceans. Essentially, MSP is an approach that can make key components of ecosystem-based management of marine areas a reality.


Numerous attempts have been made to define both the scope and nature of MSP, but relatively few have discussed how to put it into practice. This guide aims at answering your questions about how to make MSP operational in such a way that can move your initiative toward successful results.


In this guide, we use a clear, straightforward step-by-step approach to show you how you can set up and apply MSP. Most steps are illustrated with relevant examples from the real world. To make sure you have the information you need, throughout the text we refer you to more detailed sources, including the UNESCO website on MSP ( that can further support you in making good decisions in MSP.


Who should use this guide?


This guide is primarily intended for professionals responsible for the planning and management of marine areas and their resources. It is especially targeted to situations in which time, finances, information and other resources are limited. If you encounter one or more of the issues listed in Box 2, this guide might be what you need to get started.


The guide provides a comprehensive overview of MSP. It focuses on describing a logical sequence of steps that are all required to achieve desired goals and objectives for marine areas. It does not focus on the technical details of any one of the steps, e.g., it is not intended to be a guide on the development of a marine geographic information system or implementation of a performance monitoring system. When available, references to existing technical guides, handbooks, and websites are referenced in the text.


This guide can be an important tool for professionals at the international, regional, national, and sub-national levels who want to know more about the promise and potential of MSP as a way to achieve multiple goals and objectives, including sustainable economic development and biodiversity conservation.


Other reasons to begin marine spatial planning include:

  • To provide a vision and consistent direction not only of what is desirable, but what is possible in marine areas;
  • To protect nature, which has its own requirements that must be respected if long-term sustainable human development is to be achieved and if large-scale environmental degradation is to be avoided or minimized;
  • To reduce fragmentation of marine habitats (that is, when ecosystems are split up due to human activities and therefore prevented from functioning properly);
  • To make efficient use of marine resources—marine resources, including ocean space, are increasingly in short supply. Those that are available should be used to produce goods and services in a sustainable manner;
  • To set priorities—to enable significant inroads to be made into meeting the development objectives of the marine management area in an equitable way, it is necessary to provide a rational basis for setting priorities, and to manage and direct resources to where and when they are needed most;
  • To create and stimulate opportunities for new users of marine areas;
  • To coordinate actions and investments in space and time to ensure positive effects from those investments, both public and private, and to facilitate complementarity among jurisdictions;
  • To avoid duplication of effort by different public agencies and levels of government in MSP activities, including planning, monitoring, and permitting; and
  • To achieve a higher quality of service at all levels of government, e.g., by ensuring that permitting of human activities is stream-lined when proposed development is consistent with a comprehensive spatial management plan.


Why is this guide needed?


Most professionals responsible for the planning and management of marine areas and their resources usually have scientific or technical training in areas such as ecology, biology, oceanography or engineering. Few have been trained as professional planners and managers. Many new marine managers wind up “learning on the job”—a sometimes effective, but often expensive, way to do business.


This guide attempts to fill this gap by using a step-by-step approach for developing and implementing MSP. It provides an understanding of the different tasks, skills and expertise you need to develop and sustain your efforts. It also discusses issues such as obtaining financial resources or organizing stakeholders that are important, often neglected, steps of the MSP process.


Alternative visions of what might happen if we do nothing and what might happen if we manage marine space successfully is presented in Box 3.


How was this guide developed?


The steps proposed in this guide are largely based on the analysis of actual MSP initiatives from around the world. This work allowed documentation and analysis of the steps that can lead to successful implementation of the MSP process. Some of these examples have been used throughout this guide. You can read the full results of this work by visiting the UNESCO website at (


A draft text of the guide was refined through two “fine-tuning” meetings. The first was held in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States of America, from 13-17 October 2008. Massachusetts recently passed an Oceans Act requiring the development of an integrated management plan for its marine waters. The second meeting was held in two locations, Ha Noi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, from 1-8 April 2009. Vietnam recently established the Vietnamese Administration of Seas and Islands (VAS I), a national agency that is responsible for sea use management and marine spatial planning. Presenting drafts of the guide during these meetings helped to ensure the steps proposed in the guide would be practical, logical, and effective for users.


Finally, three review meetings were held with an expert group of marine scientists and managers at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, France. The first review meeting was held from 18-20 March 2008 and focused on the concepts, frameworks, principles, and approaches that should be incorporated into a guide to MSP. The second review meeting was held from 15-16 September 2008 to evaluate an initial draft of the guide. Major points of discussion included the identification of gaps, the logical sequence and practicality of the steps, and where examples from international good practice could be used to support the text. The final review meeting was held from 27-28 April 2009, during which the draft guide was modified and updated before proceeding to publication.


How is this guide organized?


The guide is organized into two parts. The first part defines MSP, why it is needed, what its benefits and outputs are, and includes how it relates to other marine management approaches.


The second part is the most important. It lays out a ten-step approach that will show you how MSP could become operational in your area. Each step is further divided into separate tasks and actions. How the steps are connected is shown in Fig. 1 on the following page.


How to use this guide


This guide is written in distinct parts, following the general structure and elements of well-known coastal and marine management cycles. It can be used in two ways.


You can start at Step 1, Identifying need and establishing authority, and follow the step-by-step approach all the way through to Step 10, Adapting the marine spatial management process. This will give you a good understanding of the logical steps for planning, developing, implementing, evaluating, and adapting MSP (see Fig. 1).


Alternatively, the table at the end of this section can direct you quickly to the parts of the guide that you may need most. In this way, you will be able to use the MSP elements you need or that may be more relevant to your time and/or budget limitations.

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