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With scarce rainfall and increasing competition for water from the Colorado River, Baja California faces many of the same challenges as Southern California as it strives to meet the needs of a swelling population.

Now water managers are considering whether to build four desalination plants along the Pacific Ocean corridor that spans Rosarito Beach to Ensenada. Two of the proposals are binational ventures — one private, the other public — that would pipe a portion of the processed seawater to users in San Diego County.


Coastal and marine spatial planning is a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent planning process. It is based on sound science and integrates ecological, economic, and social information on current and projected uses of marine waters to inform management and regulatory decisions, reduce conflicts, and facilitate compatibility among projected uses, while sustaining the State’s marine ecosystem and resources for present as well as future generations


In the Executive Order signed by President Obama in 2009 that called for a National Ocean Policy — a first-ever for the U.S.! — there was also a call for marine spatial planning. When the policy task force released its final recommendations in 2010, it contained the “National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes.” It also contained the “Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning”, which it laid out in seven steps:

  1. Support sustainable, safe, secure, efficient, and productive uses of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes, including those that contribute to the economy, commerce, recreation, conservation, homeland and national security, human health, safety, and welfare.
  2. Protect, maintain, and restore the nation’s ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources and ensure resilient ecosystems and their ability to provide sustained delivery of ecosystem services.
  3. Provide for and maintain public access to the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes.
  4. Promote compatibility among uses and reduce user conflicts and environmental impacts.
  5. Improve the rigor, coherence, and consistency of decision-making and regulatory processes.
  6. Increase certainty and predictability in planning for and implementing new investments for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes uses.
  7. Enhance interagency, intergovernmental, and international communication and collaboration.
The full text of the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (PDF), can be downloaded here.
Also available is the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan (PDF), published in April 2013, which documents the interagency translation of the Policy into decision-making and “on-the-ground” actions for the benefit of the nation, its resources, and citizens.

Additional information will be posted outlining actions being taken elsewhere by other groups and countries, including their planning, processes, scope, and the tools they have deployed. Other resources will make their way in to this conversation, although we hope that the ones that do are of significant value and save you time in wading through the vast troves of information (and growing!) pertaining to MSP, MSP resources, and MSP tools and toolkits.

A Useful Decision Guide

For beginners ready to tackle some issues in MSP, this document out of Stanford is one of the best we have seen in the many that have crossed our desks in recent months.

The Center for Ocean Solutions ( is a collaboration between Stanford University (including Hopkins Marine Station), the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The Center for Ocean Solutions is administered by the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Show me the money … and the science

Two more invaluable works for early stage decision-making are being able to make a persuasive economic case for MSP, and the European Union in 2010 did a masterful job with their Study on the Economic Effects of Marine Spatial Planning, and knowing the science requirements to actually undertake the process, which the Consortium for Ocean Leadership handled in its 2012 report, aptly, Science Requirements for Marine Spatial Planning.


1. What is marine spatial planning?

Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a process of analyzing and allocating parts of three-dimensional marine spaces (or ecosystems) to specific uses or objectives, to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives that are usually specified through a political process.

MSP is a process that is: ecosystem-based (balancing ecological, economic, and social goals and objectives toward sustainable development); integrated across economic sectors and among governmental agencies; place-based or area-based; adaptive (capable of learning from experience); strategic and anticipatory (focused on the long-term); and participatory, with stakeholders actively in the process.

2. How can marine spatial planning affect ecosystem goods and services?

Marine areas or ecosystems are affected by human activities in terms of demands for the use of the resources of the area to produce desired goods and services, such as, seafood, marine transportation, energy, and recreation. Marine ecological services, such as storm protection, waste processing, and climate regulation, are also affected by human activities.

Demands for goods and services from a marine area usually exceed its capacity to meet all of the demands simultaneously. Marine resources, such as fish and coral reefs, are often “common property resources” with “open” or “free” access to users. Free access often, if not usually, leads to excessive use of the resource (e.g., over-fishing), degradation or exhaustion of the resources (e.g., marine pollution and habitat degradation).

Because not all of the goods and services from marine ecosystems can be expressed in monetary terms, free markets cannot perform the allocation tasks. Some public process must be used to decide what mix of goods and services will be produced from the marine area. That process is marine spatial planning.

3. What is marine spatial planning NOT?

Marine spatial planning is not a substitute for single-sector planning and management. Strategic and operational plans for fisheries, transportation, energy, recreation, and conservation, for example, will continue even when integrated MSP is put into practice. Integrated MSP can provide a guide to single-sector management that should increase compatibilities and reduce conflicts across sectors, balance development and conservation interests, increase institutional effectiveness and efficiency, and address the cumulative effects of multiple human uses of the same marine space.

Marine spatial planning is not a one-time plan. The context for planning is constantly changing. Science contributes new knowledge. Monitoring and evaluation adds new information about the effectiveness, efficiency, and equity of alternative management measures. Technology improves. Social, economic, and political conditions can change over time.

Marine spatial planning is not conservation planning. While a network of marine protected areas might be one outcome of MSP, it seeks to balance economic development and environmental conservation, and not focus on only on the goals of conservation or protection.

Marine spatial planning is not ocean zoning. Marine space has been zoned for individual human uses for decades, if not longer. Fisheries have been opened or closed in particular areas or zones. Marine transportation has been managed within designated lanes or zones especially in intensively-used areas. Rights to explore or exploit energy or mineral resources have been leased on an area basis. Marine protected areas have been designated in many places in the world. However, these zones and others have been planned on a single-sector basis. MSP is the basis for integrated, multiple-objective and multiple-use management of marine spaces. Use-based or objective-based zoning can be used to implement spatial plans for marine areas.

4. Why is planning in time and space important?

The oceans are not homogeneous. Some areas are more important than others—both from ecological, as well as economic, social and cultural perspectives. Some things only happen in certain places at certain times. Effective and efficient marine spatial planning and management should address this spatial and temporal heterogeneity of marine spaces.

Important ecological areas include: areas of high biodiversity; areas of high endemism; areas of high productivity; spawning areas; nursery areas; feeding areas; and migration stopover points, among others.

Important economic areas include: oil and gas deposits; sand and gravel deposits; fishing grounds; transportation routes; areas of sustained winds or waves.

Important cultural areas include: areas of archeological or historic importance (e.g., shipwrecks); areas of spiritual or religious importance (e.g., sacred hunting or fishing grounds).

5. What are the potential benefits of marine spatial planning?

Most examples of marine spatial planning remain in the planning or early implementation phase of the management process. Measuring the benefits, except the real ecological benefits achieved in a few marine protected areas such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is not possible. However, many potential economic and ecological benefits have been identified including:

Economic Benefits:

  • Creation of greater certainty to the private sector when it plans new investments, often with a 30-year lifetime;
  • Identification of compatible uses within the same area for development;
  • Reduction of conflicts among incompatible uses and between uses and nature;
  • Streamlined permitting process; and
  • Promotion of the efficient use of resources and space.

Ecological Benefits

  • Identification of areas of biological or ecological importance;
  • Incorporation of biodiversity objectives at the heart of marine spatial planning and management;
  • Allocation of space for biodiversity and nature conservation;
  • Provision of a planning context for a network of marine protected areas; and
  • Reduction of cumulative impacts of human uses on marine ecosystems.

Social Benefits

  • Improved opportunities for community and citizen participation;
  • Identification of impacts of decisions on the allocation of ocean space for certain use (or non-use) for onshore communities and economies;
  • Identification and improved protection of cultural heritage; and
  • Identification and preservation of social and spiritual values related to ocean use.

6. Don’t we already designate zones for many places in the ocean?

Most countries already designate ocean space for marine transportation, oil and gas development, wind farms, offshore aquaculture, waste disposal, and so on, but on a case-by-case, sector-by-sector basis. Integrated spatial planning is rarely practiced today.

In many respects, ‘planning’ in the marine environment today resembles terrestrial planning in the 1970s. With only a few exceptions, no clearly articulated spatial visions exist for the use of marine areas, no plan-based approach to management, and consequently, marine developers and users face a lack of certainty. This situation is made worse by the sector-by-sector responsibilities for determining development applications in the marine environment.

The time has come for a strategic and integrated plan-based approach for the integrated management of human uses of marine areas, instead of the piecemeal view, not the least so that commitments made in a number of important international and national marine policy declarations, including commitments to an “ecosystem approach,” can be fulfilled.

7. Is marine spatial planning the same as integrated coastal zone management?

Yes and no. Both involve a strategic approach; both are concerned with the integration of different uses and activities—both aim to avoid conflict. However, the definition of the boundaries of coastal management has been limited in scope traditionally.

In most places of the world, coastal management has focused on a narrow strip of coastline, typically within a kilometer or two from the shore and occasionally focusing on a water body such as an estuary.

Rarely have the inland boundaries of coastal management included coastal watersheds or catchments areas, although that is changing in some places because of concerns about nonpoint source runoff, e.g., pollution from agriculture. Even more rarely does coastal management extend into the territorial sea and/or beyond to the exclusive economic zone. Ecosystem-based, marine spatial planning focuses on marine places in which the boundaries are ecologically meaningful and ensures integration with coastal and inland areas.

8. What can marine spatial planning do? What can it not do?

Marine spatial planning can be used to analyze and assess the need for ocean space by current and future human activities. It can be used to assess the cumulative impacts in space and time of current and future economic developments on ecological processes in ocean areas and their resources. It can be used to identify compatibilities and conflicts among uses and between uses and the environment. It can be used to allocate space to different uses, and therefore manage the location of specific human activities in time and space.

However, it cannot be used to manage the performance or behavior of human activities in terms of the production of goods and services. Other tools or management measures mentioned in the previous section must be used in conjunction with marine spatial planning.

9. Does marine spatial planning always imply zoning?

There are a number of elements to marine spatial planning without proceeding as far as zoning plans and regulations. It is also clear that there is no prerequisite for marine spatial planning to proceed as far as prescribed spatial allocations. It might instead simply indicate preferences or priorities (such ‘indicative planning’ would not prevent users from applying to use other areas including an area indicatively allocated to another use). Equally, zoning may not need to apply across the whole planning area in the sense that specific ‘zones’ might be identified, e.g., a conservation priority zone, among one general ‘zone’ that covers most of the area.