As with new concepts in virtually any field – particularly ideas that involve change from the status quo – misconceptions exist about marine ecosystem-based management and marine spatial planning (MSP). These misconceptions, held by practitioners and stakeholders alike, pose obstacles to implementation. Below, authors of two new publications describe some of the most common misunderstandings they have encountered on MSP and EBM, and how they respond to each.

From Charles Ehler and Fanny Douvere, authors of Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-Based Management (2009, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and Man and the Biosphere Programme,

MSP Misconception 1: My jurisdiction does not have the authority to apply MSP.

Reality: While some countries have specific legislation for MSP (e.g., the UK is preparing a new Coastal and Oceans Access Bill), most do not. Many countries use existing authorities – including environmental legislation (like Belgium) or biodiversity legislation (like Australia) – or existing land-use planning legislation that is extended to the sea (The Netherlands and Germany) as a basis of authority for MSP. Wherever the authority for MSP comes from, it is critical that the final plan is legally binding and enforceable.

MSP Misconception 2: We do not have enough data to apply MSP.

Reality: Perfect ecological and economic data are never available. It is more important to get started with the best data available. Even more important is the definition of clear goals and objectives for MSP. That critical step in the MSP process should guide the collection and analysis of data. International examples illustrate MSP is successful when conducted as a continuous, iterative process that is flexible to adapt when new information becomes available.

MSP Misconception 3: We do not have any conflicts among users, so we do not need MSP.

Reality: MSP is a future-oriented activity. The absence of conflicts today among human uses of marine areas or between human uses and nature conservation should not be a rationale for postponing planning and decision-making about the future use of marine areas. The benefits of avoiding conflicts and other problems in the future will far outweigh the costs of MSP today.

From Karen McLeod and Heather Leslie, editors of Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans (2009, Island Press,

EBM Misconception 1: A management effort is ecosystem-based only if it implements all the elements of the “theory” of EBM, such as the one outlined in the 2005 Scientific Consensus Statement (

Reality: In truth, there are many “right ways” to move forward. EBM will be implemented differently in different historical, social, and ecological contexts. It is possible to move forward with EBM even in situations with little information or minimal management or governance already in place.

EBM Misconception 2: EBM needs to be done at a particular “X” scale (local, regional, national, etc.).

Reality: We see from case studies of EBM in practice that it can be implemented at any spatial scale – from local, site-based efforts to entire large marine ecosystems. In many cases, management plans will need to include multiple scales, due to the ecological and human connections among different places.

EBM Misconception 3: EBM will involve much more work for managers.

Reality: Managing the full array of human activities in the ocean and explicitly considering tradeoffs among them is a fundamentally different way of doing business. While this shift will require some new personnel and funding, EBM will build on many of the scientific and technical activities already underway in coastal and marine areas. Also, it may help ease workloads by leveraging resources, reducing redundancy, and increasing certainty for managers and stakeholders about the current and future institutional landscape.

EBM Misconception 4: EBM is an academic theory, and is not actually being applied “in the water”.

Reality: Key elements of EBM are already being implemented in many locations around the world, such as in the US (Chesapeake Bay, Elkhorn Slough, Florida Keys, Great South Bay, Massachusetts, Morro Bay, Port Orford, Puget Sound); in Australia (Great Barrier Reef); in Canada (Eastern Scotian Shelf); and in Mexico (Gulf of California).