Marine functional zoning (MFZ) is administered by the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). SOA is responsible for drafting laws and regulations concerning sea area uses, environmental protection, scientific research, and island protection in China’s internal sea, territorial waters, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, and other sea areas.

The First Generation of Marine Functional Zoning

Marine functional zoning (MFZ), a multiple-use zoning tool of marine spatial planning, has been evolving in China for almost 30 years (Feng et al. 2016). MFZ was first proposed in China in 1988 and as early as 1989 experimental units were established in the Bohai Sea.

In 1997, responding to the policy of China’s national government to “…rigorously enforce laws governing the management and protection of land, water, forests, minerals, and seas”, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) officially proposed the formulation of a Law on the Management of Sea Use.  On 27 October 2001, the 24th session of the Standing Committee of the Ninth National People’s Congress adopted the law, that entered into effect on 1 January 2002 (Li 2006).

The law established three principles:

  • Right to use the sea authorization system: According to the law, the sea is owned by the State. The State Council exercises the ownership of the seas on behalf of the State. Any entity or individual that intends to use the sea must apply in advance and obtain the right to use the sea; they are authorised only after the approval of the national government;
  • Marine functional zoning (MFZ) system: The law stipulates that any use of the sea area must comply with the MFZ plan established by the State. The plan is the foundation for marine management, under which the sea is divided into different types of functional zones (according to the criteria related to ecological functions and priority use), to regulate and guide rational use of a sea area; and
  • User-fee system: The right to use the sea is protected under the State’s legal system. The State imposes a user-fee system that requires that any entity or individual that uses the sea must pay a fee in accordance with the regulations of the State Council. This system stipulates all entities and individuals that intend to use the sea to carry out production and other economic activities, must pay for its use [Note: China has collected over RMB 67.1 billion (about US$10.4 billion) in user fees in the ten years between 2005-2014 (data from SOA Sea Area Management Bulletin)—the only country that relies on this novel approach to finance its MSP activities].

MFZ refers to dividing sea areas (inclusive of islands) into different functional “zones” in which a functional zone is a designated sea area for human activities based on its geographical and ecological features, natural resources, current usage and socioeconomic development needs. MFZ has become the basis for marine development planning, marine resource management, and the establishment of marine nature reserves in China.

The law established a “two-level management system”, i.e., all sea-use applications will be assessed and approved by the provincial, as well as the national government. Governments at city and county levels do not have the authority to approve sea-use applications. This is to ensure that sea-use activities are placed under stricter control of the provincial level and national government. According to the Law, 70% of the fees collected from sea use are returned to provincial governments and 30% goes directly to the State revenue, for marine development, protection and management.

marine spatial planningThe Second Generation

Starting in 2000, under the overall supervision of the State Council, SOA, along with other relevant ministries and coastal provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities formulated a nation-wide marine functional zoning plan. After extensive data collection, intensive studies and several consultations, the first National Marine Functional Zoning Plan was submitted to the State Council and approved on 22 August 2002. Since 2004 MFZ has been approved for coastal provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities.

The State Council provided comprehensive guidelines on the national implementation of the zoning scheme and its management, and further defined the responsibilities and mandates of the various competent governmental organisations in ocean management. It emphasised that marine functional zoning scheme is the legal basis of the management of sea use and marine protection and should therefore be strictly implemented. The Council also pointed out that relevant laws and regulations on ocean management should be firmly implemented based on the principle of “development in protection and protection in development”, with the ultimate goal of the rational development and sustainable use of the sea.

The implementation of the National Marine Functional Zoning Plan marked the initial establishment of a regional planning system and an integrated management framework for marine development and conservation in China. By 2008 MFZ plans were completed for all of the 11 coastal provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities and have been approved by their respective local governments for implementation.


The Third Generation

China’s third generation of MFZ (National Marine Functional Zoning, Year 2011-2020) initiated in 2010 identifies quantifiable national objectives, e.g., marine protected areas should be at least 5% of sea area under China’s jurisdiction and MPAs cannot be less than 11% of the total sea area by 2020.  The total area of the fishing area sea zone should be no less than 2.8 million hectares (28,000 km2). It has also revised its national approach by dividing its EEZ into five seas (Bohai, Yellow, East China, and South China seas and the sea area east of Taiwan) and further divided into these major seas into 29 sea areas. In October 2012 the State Council announced that MFZ would be implemented in eight coastal provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities: Hebei, Liaoning, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Shandong, Guangxi, and Tianjin.

Implementation of MFZ in China has revealed several weaknesses in the process that are similar to those in other countries: (1) need for better coordination between sea and land planning; (2) need for better resolution of conflicts between human uses and the marine environment; (3) increased focus on performance monitoring and evaluation; and (4) increased stakeholder participation in the zoning process (Feng et al. 2011).



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Authority:Law of the Management of Sea Use of 2001
Lead Planning Agency:State Oceanic Administration and Provincial Governments
Financing:Funding for planning and management provided through a user charge system
Size of Planning Area:174,000 km2 (estimated area of Chinese Territorial Sea)
Time required to complete the plans:Not specified
Drivers of MSP:Interest in recovering “rent” from private use of public resources
Stakeholder participation:Limited to consultation with other ministries
Sectors included in planning:All
Relation to coastal management:Not specified
Relation to marine protected area management:Not specified
Plan approval:First national Marine Functional Zoning Plan was submitted by SOA to the State Council and approved in August 2002; 11 Provincial-level zoning plans have now been prepared and approved for implementation.
Legal Status of Plan:Regulatory and enforceable
Plan revision:Not specified
Performance monitoring and evaluation:Not specified