Maritime Spatial Planning – healthy ecosystems mean healthy economies

Last week (28 August), the European Union officially published its new Directive on Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP). This requires all EU Member States with marine and coastal waters to establish systems of MSP and produce one or more plans which effectively say how their seas should be used.

MSP is not a new concept, and has been called other names in the past: ‘integrated sea use management’, ‘sea-use planning’, ‘bioregional planning’ – you name it. Its background lies in conservation zoning protection schemes dating to the 1970s, such as those used for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It also has a history in marine pollution control and shipping, for example in setting shipping lanes or identifying areas sensitive to pollution. Indeed, in 1979, one academic asked:

“What is wrong with the concept of sea areas managed with particular objectives as priorities? … It has long been accepted that the use of land must be planned and its management controlled with human welfare as the dominant interest; why is it so difficult to accept this view when considering the sea?”[1]

The difference today is that MSP is much more all-encompassing than in the past. It deals with all sectors and all activities, and needs to make difficult decisions about the use of marine space. Secondly, our demand for space grows all the time, for renewable energy, for extraction of raw materials, for aquaculture and so on (and let’s not forget to protect the most valuable or sensitive habitats and species). And finally, our marine environment is being degraded – we have very few bits of “pristine” sea left in Europe.

So MSP is again the new buzzword. So what do we at BirdLife think a good maritime spatial plan should look like? Well, each plan will have its own characteristics, but in general, all good plans should have 6 things in common:

  1. A strong long-term vision and a clear path to get there
  2. Policies that are realise that healthy ecosystems and healthy societies are the key to healthy economies, not the other way around.
  3. Best available evidence at its heart, and the ability to change over time as new evidence emerges
  4. Clear language: it needs to be read, understood and remembered!
  5. Strong support and involvement from the sea users themselves (including NGOs)
  6. Good monitoring and enforcement.

Back to the Directive

BirdLife was initially against this Directive when it was first proposed, even though we support MSP as a concept, as we were worried it would be overwhelmingly focussed on achieving economic ‘Blue Growth’. And guess what? It is! We also wondered why there was a need for a Directive on planning at sea when there is no equivalent EU-wide Directive for land planning.

However, when we realised that the Directive was inevitable, we, along with Seas At Risk and WWF, played an active part in trying to make the Directive more balanced, and ensure that it’s not all about growth, growth and more growth. This was at times an uphill struggle, but we are pleased with the following aspects of the Directive:

  • All Member States are required to use an ecosystem-based approach in creating their plans
  • These plans must “aim to contribute to… the preservation, protection and improvement of the environment including the resilience to climate change impacts”
  • There are clear links to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, as well as links to the Habitats and Birds Directives.

These will be things that BirdLife partners will be reminding their national planning authorities when they are setting up their plans.

As the MSP Directive is only a “framework” Directive, and as planning is a national competency, the Directive’s only real obligations relate to the process of setting up plans, not their content. Member States still decide what the plans look like, how detailed they are and what they want the plans to achieve. In countries, such as the UK, Germany or the Netherlands, where MSP is already well-established, the Directive is not going to affect what’s going on at the moment. But for countries that are new to MSP, there will be some work to catch up.

For a useful summary of what’s going on in different countries on MSP, check out UNESCO’s MSP webpage. This also has a step-by-step guide on how to do ecosystem-based MSP.

As ever, I’m on Twitter at @1TakeTaylor for information on the RSPB’s marine work in the UK and other interesting stories! Get in touch!


[1] Cole, H.A. (1979). Marine planning and the objectives of marine pollution control. Marine Pollution Bulletin 10 (1), January 1979, p.1


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