The Present and Future of Marine Spatial Planning around the World

Blogger picture

By Charles N. Ehler, Ocean Visions Consulting, charles.ehler [at]

The New Year is a good time to pause and assess where we are and where we might go over the next 10-12 years in the rapidly developing field of integrated marine spatial planning (MSP).

Integrated MSP is alive and well in many parts of the world and continues to grow at astonishing speed.  Strategic debates about the long-term future of marine areas are being held in various fora throughout the world. Today almost 10% of the world’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are covered by government-approved marine spatial plans—an impressive accomplishment that has been reached only over the past 10-12 years.  Over the next 10-12 years marine spatial plans will easily cover more than a third of marine waters under national jurisdiction.

Several large maritime countries are leading the way.  Norway has already prepared and approved two marine spatial plans for its exclusive economic zone covering the Barents and Norwegian seas.  Australia—the third largest EEZ in the world—has just completed and approved, after ten years of planning, five marine bioregional plans for its entire EEZ.  A major output of the Australian bioregional planning program is the designation of the world’s largest national system of marine reserves of about 2.5 million km2, about a third of its ocean territory, although critics claim that the design of the marine reserve system avoided conflicts with fishing and oil and gas development.  China has completed and implemented marine zoning plans for its entire territorial sea, and more importantly, has implemented a user charge system that has raised the equivalent of over US$4 billion to sustain marine planning and its implementation over time.  Other countries that have already implemented national marine spatial plans include Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.

Other European countries have begun marine spatial planning programs.  England should approve the first marine plan for its East region next year following public consultation and will begin work on its second regional plan in the South of England.  The United Kingdom has also selected 31 of 127 proposed marine conservation zones within its waters, although critics point out that many biologically important areas have not been included.  Portugal has completed a plan for its entire EEZ that is being publicly reviewed prior to implementation in 2013.  Sweden has begun a MSP process that will be completed over the next several years.  Six other countries around the Baltic Sea have finished MSP pilot projects with funding from the European Union.  However, European countries along the northern Mediterranean lag behind their counterparts in the North and Baltic seas.  In a promising development, the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs of the European Commission that has been promoting transnational MSP for the Baltic, North, and Mediterranean seas is expected to issue a directive on maritime spatial planning in 2013 with the intent of providing a consistent framework across the European Union for coastal and marine spatial planning.  The 22 coastal countries of the European Union collectively represent one of the largest EEZs in the world (about 5 million km2, excluding overseas territories).

In the United States, the re-election of President Obama gave renewed life to coastal and marine spatial planning currently authorized under a presidential executive order.  Progress has been slow but steady, particularly in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic marine regions of the USA.  Despite continuing opposition from a few key legislators and lack of substantial funding, the United States will continue to move slowly ahead toward completing plans, or at least the basis for marine planning, for many of its marine regions over the next 5-10 years. However, it will remain back in the pack of countries that are leading implementation of MSP.

Not all the news is as positive.  The Canadian Oceans Act of 1997 was the first comprehensive oceans management legislation in the world, and expectations were high that Canada would be a model of how ocean management could be done. Five large ocean management areas (LOMAs) were identified as priority marine planning areas.  A plan for the Eastern Scotian Shelf was completed in 2008, but never approved by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).  A plan for the Beaufort Sea was completed in 2009 and “supported” by the DFO, but no funds were allocated for implementation.  And, after six years of preparatory work by conservation groups, fishing interests, indigenous groups, and marine scientists, the DFO initiated in 2010 the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management (PNCIMA) planning process. The goal was to develop a plan to conserve a relatively undeveloped marine region, while fostering sustainable economic development on the coast. But after only a year of cooperative planning among governments and stakeholders, countered by aggressive lobbying by the marine shipping and oil and gas interests, in 2011 the federal government withdrew from an agreement with the Province of British Columbia and Coastal First Nations to fund the PNCIMA planning process. A new partnership between British Columbia and First Nations continues to work on a regional marine plan for the west coast of Canada.

Despite a few setbacks, the future of MSP and its ecological and economic outcomes looks bright.  One indicator of a promising future is the startup of inter-disciplinary university programs in MSP, especially in Europe; professional training programs in MSP are springing up from North America to Europe to Southeast Asia.  A new generation of well-trained marine planners and managers is being born.  Interest is rising in South American countries with large marine areas such as Brazil and Chile, and Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia.  A European Directive on MSP should stimulate all European countries to marine spatial planning and implementation.

If most of the 22 EU coastal countries (which, not including their overseas territories, account for 3.4% of total world EEZ area), mainland USA (1.7%), Alaska (2.7%), and Hawaii (1.7%), New Zealand (2.9%), Brazil (2.6%), Mexico (2.2%), Costa Rica (0.4%), and one or two large Pacific island nations (Kiribati, Seychelles, or Fiji—each about 1%) implement MSP over the next 12 years, almost 33% of the total area of the EEZs of the world will have approved marine spatial plans by 2025.

Stretching aspirations only a little, Russia (5.3%), Indonesia (4.3%), Canada (3.9%), Japan (3.2%), Chile (2.6%), Philippines (1.1%), South Africa (1.1%), Greenland (1.1%) and Argentina (0.8%), and several other small island/large ocean nations (Federated States of Micronesia, Maldives, Mauritius—each about 1%) could add another 20-25% to a 2025 target. This will mean almost 50% of the area of the EEZs of the world can have approved marine spatial plans—and at least a large part of the world ocean will be in a better place.

Charles (Bud) Ehler ( is the President of Ocean Visions Consulting in Paris, France.  He is also a Senior Consultant on marine spatial planning ( to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in Paris.  Data used in the preparation of this article comes from The Sea Around Us project (, the most comprehensive and consistent data set on the world’s EEZs.

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of new blogs. Simply visit any blog post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.