An Introduction to Marine Spatial Planning


“I am like a mosquito in a nudist camp, I know what I ought to do, but I don’t know where to begin.”
– Stephen F. Bayne, Jr., 1908-1974, American Anglican bishop

marine spatial planning

What Is the Purpose of this Website?

Over the past 10 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—in the last several years this outcome has been characterised as creating a “Blue Economy”.  Essentially, MSP is a practical approach that can make important outcomes 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 MSP into practice. This on-line guide aims to answer your questions about how to make MSP operational in a way that can move your initiative toward successful results and outcomes.

On this website, we use a clear, straightforward step-by-step approach to show you how you can set up and apply MSP.  These steps are illustrated with examples of “good practice” from the real world and recommended key references for more information. As importantly, the website will describe some examples that have not worked for various reasons—lessons of practices to avoid.

Throughout this website, the term “good practice” will be used, rather then “best practice”. Best practice implies that a management practice is the best way to do something—and it will always be the best.  However, the practice might only be the best in the short run, not not the long run.  Best practices are simply good practices on the way to becoming best practices—if we ever get there.  Examples of good practices are what appears to work now.  We should always be open to improvements.  It is always difficult to pin down best practices, so the term “good practice” will be used.

What Can this Website Offer You?

  • Understanding of what marine spatial planning is about, what benefits it can have, and what results you can expect from investing in MSP;
  • Insights into the logical steps and tasks of setting up and implementing a successful MSP program; and
  • Awareness of what has worked and what has not in MSP practice around the world over the past decade.

Checklist for Determining the Usefulness of this Website to You

  • Do you have, or expect to have, human activities that adversely affect important natural areas of your marine area, for example marine mammal migration corridors?
  • Do you have, or expect, incompatible human activities that might conflict with one another in your marine area?
  • Do you need to streamline policies and licensing procedures affecting your marine area?
  • Do you need to decide on what space is most suitable for the development of new human activities such as renewable energy facilities or offshore aquaculture?
  • Do you need a spatial vision of what your marine area could or should look like in another 10, 20, or 30 years from now?

What Is “Good Practice”?

Examples of criteria that can be used to identify good practices include:

  • Effective and successful. A “good practice” has proven its relevance as the most effective way in achieving a specific outcome; it has been successfully adopted and has had a positive impact on stakeholders, the economy, and the marine environment;
  • Environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. A “good practice” meets current and long-term needs;
  • Technically feasible. The practice is easy to understand, learn and implement;
  • Inherently participatory. Participatory approaches are essential as they support a joint sense of ownership of decisions and actions; and
  • Replicable and adaptable: The practice should have the potential for replication and should be adaptable to similar objectives in varying situations

Who Should Use this Website?

This website 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, funds, information, capacity, and other resources are limited—the case in most situations. If you encounter one or more of the issues listed in the Box below, this website might be what you need to get started toward MSP.The website 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 and scientific details of any one of the steps, e.g., it is not intended to provide advice on the development of a marine geographic information system (GIS), deciding to or not to select a decision support system, or implementation of a performance monitoring system.  When available, references to existing technical guides, handbooks, and websites are referenced.

This website 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 marine conservation.


Other reasons why you might want 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 minimised;
  • To reduce fragmentation of marine habitats (that is, when marine 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 create and stimulate opportunities for new users of marine areas;
  • To set priorities—to enable significant inroads to be made into meeting the development objectives of the marine 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 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, evaluation, 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 streamlined when proposed development is consistent with a comprehensive, integrated marine spatial plan.

© WWF Germany

Who are “marine spatial planners and managers”?

In addition to planning professional responsible for integrated marine plans, many sectoral managers and institutions with sectoral values and interests manage marine and coastal areas including:

  • Planners of multiple-use regional marine spatial management regions;
  • Fishery managers, especially fishery managers of essential habitats;
  • Marine and coastal aquaculture managers;
  • Marine transport managers;
  • Offshore oil and gas managers;
  • Offshore renewable energy managers;
  • Coastal land use managers
  • Water quality managers
  • Marine tourism and recreation managers; and
  • Marine and coastal protected area managers

Since a single “marine manager” or integrated management institution rarely exists in a marine region, it’s important to involve these sectoral managers and their interests in the MSP process.
Image credit: WWF Germany


Why Is this Website Relevant?

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


How Is this Section of the Website Organised?

The following pages are organised 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, for example, coastal zone management.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 marine area with a focus on “good practice”. Each step is further divided into separate tasks and actions.


How to Use this Section of the Website?

This section is organized into 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, Establishing Authority, and follow the step-by-step approach all the way through to Step 10, Adapting the Process. This will give you a good understanding of the logical steps for planning, developing, implementing, evaluating, and adapting MSP. Please recognize that the process is not linear, moving from step-to-step. Rather, based on experience within your specific context, you can expect to often loop back into previous steps and then move forward.

Alternatively, you can click on any of the topics in the graph below and go quickly to the parts of the website 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.
marine spatial planning

UNESCO's Step-by-step Approach for Marine Spatial Planning toward Ecosystem-based Management" offers a 10-step guide on how to get a marine spatial plan started in your region. Explore the guide by choosing steps here.

Download Guide
(PDF 1.5MB)