Marine Spatial Planning ten years later: A conversation with Charles “Bud” Ehler


Editor’s note: Charles “Bud” Ehler is president of Ocean Visions Consulting and a consultant on MSP to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). IOC and the European Commission Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE) just hosted the 2nd International Conference on Marine/Maritime Spatial Planning in Paris, France, in March 2017. This conference was held ten years after the first IOC international workshop on MSP in November 2006 in Paris – a meeting that has been characterized as the starting point for the spread of MSP internationally. Ehler was integrally involved in planning both conferences. He co-chaired the 2006 workshop and was the keynote speaker at the 2017 conference. The views and opinions expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect those of IOC or official conference documents. He can be reached at charles.ehler [at]

MEAM: What were some of the most striking aspects of the conversations and talks you heard at the 2nd International Conference on MSP that just wrapped up in Paris?

Ehler: Certainly one of the striking aspects of almost all of the talks at the conference was the very consistent affirmation of MSP as an effective process or framework to achieve EBM, sustainable economic development (the “Blue Economy”), and conservation in marine places around the world. The role of MSP in implementing Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development was a topic of a conference panel and the focus of the Joint Roadmap, a product of the conference.

Two things struck me about the 300+ participants – their youth and diversity. I’m sure that at least half were under 30 years old – a good situation for a field that needs new planners. I was impressed that a large number of participants came from African countries – all eager to learn about MSP. Enthusiasm and hope for MSP were high throughout the conference, and the need for MSP capacity building is recognized in the Joint Roadmap.

MEAM: You mentioned that it's amazing to see how much progress has been made in the field over the past 10 years. Can you describe some of the major changes you have seen in the MSP field over that time?

Ehler: The biggest change in MSP over the past 10 years is its geographic scope. It has grown from initiatives in a handful of places, mostly in Western Europe and North America, to over 60 initiatives around the world in various stages of development. Much of the growth in the next five years will be due to Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (law) of the EU that requires the its 23 member countries with marine waters to have approved marine plans by 2021. New initiatives continue to pop up in other regions as well, e.g., Myanmar, Mauritius, Namibia, and Saint Lucia. Current trends suggest that well over 30% of the surface area of the world’s EEZs could be covered by government-approved marine spatial plans by 2030.

Another change is the increasing recognition of the need for trans-boundary MSP at the regional level. Trans-boundary MSP is necessary if we want to move MSP closer to EBM. The European Union is encouraging a regional, trans-boundary approach among its member countries and all of its sea basins, e.g., the North and Baltic Seas. In the US, good progress has been made in working across boundaries for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regional ocean plans. Specific actions that need to be taken to promote trans-boundary MSP are laid out in the Joint Roadmap document from the conference.

MEAM: Here at MEAM, we have heard concerns that MSP is sometimes co-opted by proponents of "blue growth" who in some cases may be more concerned with fitting as much short-term extractive activity as possible into the ocean than with maintaining long-term ocean health. Do you share these concerns?

Ehler: No, I do not. “Growing the Blue Economy” has become a characterization of many MSP initiatives (e.g., South Africa, Seychelles, Caribbean countries, Abu Dhabi) around the world because of the appeal of “unlocking” the ocean economy – creating jobs and providing incentives for technological innovation. It is particularly appealing in low-income countries where increases in employment and income from a “Blue Economy” could reduce poverty and deliver shared prosperity. The relative contribution of the ocean to the national economy is much higher in a number of coastal and island states with large ocean areas – for example providing an estimated 20% of the national economy of Indonesia.

However, many of the economic sectors identified for growth in a Blue Economy (tourism and recreation, mariculture, marine biotechnology) require a healthy and resilient marine ecosystem. Overfishing, pollution, unsustainable coastal development – and now the effects of climate change and ocean acidification – must also be dealt with if truly “Blue” economies are to be developed.

The Republic of the Seychelles marine planning initiative (2014-2017), covering over 1.4 million km2 of ocean and 115 islands, is an excellent example of how MSP can support protection of a global biodiversity hotspot (the plan commits protection of 30% of its exclusive economic zone), improve the resilience of coastal ecosystems to the effects of climate change, and ensure economic opportunities through development of a Blue Economy. Compatible uses are being aligned with biodiversity objectives through MSP. The first phase of the Seychelles plan will be completed in 2017; the final plan in 2020.

I remember the early days of MSP (2000-2005) when it was minimized by its detractors as just another marine conservation initiative that they hoped would go away. Today some are concerned that MSP has become too focused on economic development. In fact, MSP is about finding a balance among social, economic, and environmental objectives that is desirable in any marine planning area. That balance should be sought through the engagement of stakeholders and influenced by the best natural and social science available to the MSP process. Ultimately the marine plan and its implementation will be a political decision that should be revisited periodically to see if the balance of objectives and management actions are still appropriate and desired. MSP is a continuing process and long-term commitment – and it works when used adaptively. Slogans such as “Growing a Blue Economy” are often helpful in launching initiatives. Real intentions are best revealed in the outcomes of specific management objectives and actions specified in marine plans, including those related to ocean health.

MEAM: Do you have any suggestions for current and aspiring natural and social science researchers as to where they should focus their work to help MSP initiatives and move the field forward?

Ehler: We have accomplished and learned much in practical applications of MSP, at least in terms of getting a first generation of plans in place, but a lot remains to be done to move ahead. Applied research needs – such as methods to assess cumulative effects, more effective decision support tools, better valuation of non-market marine goods and services (e.g., natural capital and ecosystem services) – have been identified in many fora and articles over the last decade. Some progress has been made in these areas, but they continue to be high priorities for applied research.

However, while MSP practitioners and researchers acknowledge the importance of social data in the development of marine plans, only a few efforts have been made to collect and apply social data, especially spatial social data for MSP. These data are important if planners expect to balance ecological, economic, and social objectives in MSP. Delivering beneficial human welfare outcomes in marine plans will not be possible without the availability and use of better spatially explicit social data.

One of the biggest challenges in moving the field forward would include a focus on measuring and communicating the distribution of the outcomes of MSP processes, e.g., equity considerations. This is not a radical idea as some have characterized it, but simply a fundamental evaluation question – who bears the costs and who receives the benefits of the outcomes of MSP plans and are these acceptable/desired outcomes? Only a few plans have attempted to estimate the costs and benefits of delivering desired outcomes of MSP, let alone their distribution. Applied social science research is needed to help marine planners determine these distributional effects of MSP.

A related challenge—especially to young, tech-savvy researchers, is to better communicate the purpose and outcomes of MSP to decision makers, stakeholders, and the general public. Social media, simulation games (such as “MSP Challenge 2050” that was played throughout the conference), virtual and augmented reality, films, and cartoons (such as WWF-Germany’s “How to Safeguard the Seas through Ecosystem-based Management”) can all be used to move forward. Effective communications of MSP outcomes is also identified as a priority area in the Joint Roadmap.

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