Marine Planning: Tragedy of the Acronyms

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By Jeff Ardron, jeff.ardron [at]

What is it about maritime planning and its fickle love affairs with acronyms? Two years ago, I was in a forum about communicating science and was informed that ecosystem-based management (EBM) was no longer a good thing to say because it sounds too “sciencey” which makes stakeholders and decision-makers nervous. Clearly this was bad news for all of us who had previously been promoting the concept.

Instead, we were supposed to talk about concrete things, like marine spatial planning (MSP). But a short year later, in the United States, MSP too had become taboo, because it implied zoning, which — you guessed It — makes stakeholders and decision-makers nervous. As you may recall, zoning wasn’t always bad. About ten years ago or so, we were singing praises to integrated coastal zone management (ICZM)!

When our field isn’t busy flitting from acronym to acronym, we seem to be busy creating new variants of the ones we have. For example, ICZM was also known as ICM, or simply IM. More recently, the US Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force evidently felt compelled to create a new variant to MSP — CMSP. The Executive Order from the President states:

“The term ‘coastal and marine spatial planning’ means a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science....”

After reading through a few such definitions EBM, I(C)(Z)M, and (C)MSP can all start to look very much alike. Each of these planning acronyms purports to be transparent, accountable, adaptive, and so on, capturing what are really just good aspects of any planning process. Ironically, although the authors often preach integration, they rarely refer to literature outside of their chosen sphere (though there are some notable exceptions). Each proponent insists that her or his planning acronym is new and different, while at the same time incorporating everything that has preceded it. As a result, these acronyms have progressively become more and more burdened with additional meanings.

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There)

To what advantage is this Humpty Dumpty naming, re-naming, and re-defining of marine planning acronyms?

A modest proposal

To bring this discussion back to common parlance, and hence to those skittish stakeholders and decision-makers, here is my modest proposal: instead of expecting each new acronym to be the vessel that contains the myriad of our marine planning desires, why not look at them as a whole? Why not shed these burdensome multiple definitions and let each concept stand on its own as part of a collective approach?

Let’s start with the most expansive of these concepts, EBM.

Ecosystem-based management (…approach, …fisheries management, etc.) is a big all-encompassing concept, arguably extending to the whole of the Earth’s biosphere. This is what makes it so hard to nail down. In the spirit of simplicity, let us just say that EBM means that our management is based in ecological realities — food web interactions, resilience, and so on. However, that alone is not enough to guide planning, so read on...

Integrated management (coastal management, coastal zone management, etc) is talking about humans and our various activities, and how it is a good idea to integrate them into a single planning process — neither more nor less. (See, this is actually quite easy, isn’t it!) However, this can be done poorly unless it is...

Systematic planning (conservation planning, etc), which argues for a structured stepwise approach that develops goals, objectives, and targets. It identifies gaps and fills them. These can be non-spatial or...

Spatial planning (marine/maritime spatial planning, coastal and marine spatial planning, etc) which is, as the name suggests, the planning of how increasing numbers of humans can utilize limited space. Taken by itself, this sounds rather dull and self-evident; but taken in the context of the above elements, it has a much richer meaning.

In the Venn diagram below, each of the above approaches can stand alone, without elements of the others. But it is the area where they all overlap that is of most interest. Indeed, this is the hallowed territory over which all the acronyms have been vying for attention: that is, where EBM is also Integrated, Systematic, and Spatial.

Figure 1: EIS-S, the intersection of ecosystem based, integrated, systematic spatial planning. The size of the ovals represents the breadth of the concept. For example, integrated planning is a broad concept that may or may not be systematic, and could be spatial or non-spatial; but it is not as expansive as EBM.

As a mnemonic device, all this can boil down to… a new acronym! EIS-S: Ecosystem-based, Integrated and Systematic, within a Spatial context. The acronym is pronounced “Isis” like the ancient Egyptian goddess, daughter of Heaven and Earth, friend to the rich and poor alike.

Will this newly minted, unabashedly ugly meta-acronym stop the planning acronym beauty contest? Probably not, unfortunately. I suspect that we are doomed to continue playing our parts in this unfolding tragedy, and that not even an Egyptian goddess can reverse our pre-planned fates….

(Breaking news: I just heard that talking about EBM is okay again, at least in some places. Phew. Maybe, in a few years, we can even talk about multiple zoning again.)

Jeff Ardron is director of the High Seas Program at the Marine Conservation Institute in the US. He is also president of the board for PacMARA (Pacific Marine Analysis and Research Association) and an active member of the science board for the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI).

(Originally published in MEAM 4:2, 2010; revised July 2012. Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect upon any bodies with which he may be associated.)