In the field of marine resource management, two concepts have received particular attention in recent years: ecosystem-based management (EBM) and marine spatial planning (MSP). Examples of these concepts in practice are emerging around the world. However, the distinction between the two often remains unclear to stakeholders, as well as to many resource managers responsible for implementing one or both concepts. In a November 2009 webinar on marine spatial planning (co-presented by MEAM and the EBM Tools Network – see box “Webinar excerpt” at the end of this article), more than one audience member asked whether EBM and MSP were essentially the same thing.

The concepts are not the same, but they are related. For insights on that relationship, MEAM asked three practitioners who have instituted marine spatial plans to comment. In short, we wanted to know what role EBM played in their spatial planning work.

Massachusetts: “MSP will be more effective to the extent that it incorporates EBM”

The US state of Massachusetts released a spatial management plan for its marine waters in December 2009. The plan aims to balance environmental protection with sustainable use, in part through a zoning system that ranges from strict protection to multi-use (see this issue’s news brief “Massachusetts releases ocean management plan”). Deerin Babb-Brott, Massachusetts’ assistant secretary for ocean and coastal zone management, managed the planning process. “The plan sets Massachusetts on a path toward comprehensive ecosystem-based ocean management,” he says.

The Massachusetts state law that mandated creation of such a plan required it to be ecosystem-based. Babb-Brott says one of the first challenges he faced was determining, for internal guidance, what was meant by “marine spatial planning” and “ecosystem-based management”.

“We reviewed many definitions and applications of EBM and MSP,” he says. Eventually his team settled on definitions adopted from the Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine Ecosystem-Based Management (for the EBM definition) and UNESCO (for the MSP definition) – “based on their intuitive simplicity,” he says. The definitions were as follows:

“[EBM is] an integrated approach to management that considers the entire ecosystem, including humans. The goal of ecosystem-based management is to maintain an ecosystem in a healthy, productive and resilient condition so that it can provide the services humans want and need. Ecosystem-based management differs from current approaches that usually focus on a single species, sector, activity or concern; it considers the cumulative impacts of different sectors.” [This definition is at]

“[MSP] is the adaptive process of collecting, analyzing and managing the spatial distribution of marine resources and habitats and human activities to achieve the goals defined by society. Not unlike what we regularly do on land in terms of zoning and land-use planning to site development while protecting such features as open space, habitat, and drinking water supplies, marine spatial planning seeks to do the same in the ocean environment.”

Babb-Brott says that no matter what kind of ocean management system an authority has in place – MSP, EBM, or otherwise – it will always include (a) some degree of protection for critical resources and systems and (b) accommodation of some set of human activities. “Our ability to manage human impacts to natural systems requires an understanding of those systems themselves,” he says. “Therefore, marine spatial planning will be more effective to the extent it incorporates principles and practices of ecosystem-based management.”

In developing the ocean plan, Babb-Brott’s team developed a tool for characterizing areas of relative ecological significance – i.e., sites with “special, sensitive, or unique” estuarine and marine life and habitats. His team called the tool the Ecological Valuation Index (EVI) and based it on work from Europe (the Belgian North Sea) and Canada (the Scotian Shelf). An explanation of the EVI is at

“In the end, while we were not able to formally incorporate the EVI as a basis for decision-making, we used information from it as the basis for regulatory maps that allow or disallow development relative to specific resource areas,” says Babb-Brott. “Consideration of the EVI was important because it required us to evaluate available science and our understanding of the ecosystem. We also had to determine whether, and how, potential management measures could be substantiated by our current knowledge.”

The Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan is available at

For more information: Lisa Capone, Press Secretary, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Boston, Massachusetts, US. E-mail:

Norway: An “integrated EBM plan” that amounts to MSP

In 2006, Norway established an “integrated, ecosystem-based management plan” for its Barents Sea waters. The plan’s stated purpose was to provide a framework for sustainable use of natural resources derived from the Barents Sea while maintaining the structure, functioning, and productivity of the sea’s ecosystems.

The plan – available at – does not use the term “marine spatial management”. However, that is basically what the plan amounts to, says Erik Olsen, head of the research program on oil and fish at Norway’s Institute of Marine Research. “The Barents Sea Plan – in addition to Norway’s integrated management plan for the Norwegian Sea – are spatial management plans, especially in regards to allocating space for the petroleum industry and shipping lanes,” says Olsen. “These plans incorporate many of the aspects of what is considered good practice on MSP.”

The ecosystem-based elements of the Barents Sea plan are readily apparent. The plan assesses pressures and impacts on the environment, recommends measures to reduce pollution and safeguard biodiversity, and sets up a system for monitoring the state of the ecosystem, among other actions.

“At present the Barents Sea plan provides good protection for the most valuable ecosystem components and areas,” says Olsen. “These are now off-limits to the petroleum industry. But the industry is pushing strongly to gain access after the revision of the plan later this year [2010].” The plan is scheduled to be revised every four years. Regarding that process, Olsen says that although government priorities – and the plan itself – may naturally change over time, the ecosystem-based aspects of the plan should be long-lasting.

“Such planning serves several long-term purposes that cannot be overlooked once they are in place, irrespective of changing governments,” he says. “These include identification and setting of value to areas and ecosystem components; analysis of vulnerability in relation to external pressures; and analysis of cumulative impacts. The integrated analysis and identification form a new baseline for all management.”

For more information: Erik Olsen, Institute of Marine Research, Bergen, Norway. E-mail:

Germany: Sustainable spatial development

Germany has three spatial management plans for its part of the Baltic Sea. One plan covers the Exclusive Economic Zone and was established by the federal government. The two other plans cover state waters out to 12 statute miles from shore, and were established by their respective states in northern Germany: Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The Spatial Development Programme for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern covers the state’s land and coastal waters together. The marine portion of it is designed to reduce conflicting demands of new technologies (namely offshore wind energy sites), tourism, nature protection, and traditional sectors like shipping, fishing, and defence. Susan Toben of the state ministry responsible for regional development says the plan’s guiding principle is “sustainable spatial management”: i.e., bringing the state’s social and economic needs into harmony with its ecological functions. The goal is long-term, large-scale, and balanced spatial development.

Toben draws a distinction between this and ecosystem-based management. In her interpretation of the concept, the ecosystem-based approach gives primacy to ecological demands. “Our spatial planning has to balance the environmental, economic, and social aspects of sustainability, and it has to secure development potential for future uses,” she says. “Social and economic demands are of the same value as ecological demands.”

However, Toben notes that ecosystem considerations still play an important role in the Spatial Development Programme. Substantial areas in the coastal zone, for example, have been set aside for nature protection. “Our priority areas and reserve areas for nature protection and management are vital for maintaining open spaces,” she says. In the priority areas, which are zoned specifically for nature protection, all conflicting uses are prohibited. In the reserve areas, decisions on whether to allow conflicting uses are made on a case-by-case basis. Such uses may be permitted if a comparative evaluation demonstrates their relative socio-economic significance and a lack of acceptable alternatives.

“These examples show that ecosystem-based aspects have been incorporated,” says Toben. “But the overall basis for the spatial development plan is the principle of sustainable spatial development.”

The text of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern plan is available at The language is German, although the plan also includes a short English summary. A map is at

For more information: Petra Schmidt and Susan Toben, Ministry of Transport, Building and Regional Development, Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. E-mail: and

BOX: Webinar excerpt: Does marine spatial planning have to be ecosystem-based?

On 17 November 2009, MEAM and the EBM Tools Network co-presented a 90-minute webinar on marine spatial planning. The event featured Bud Ehler and Fanny Douvere, co-authors of the guidebook Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-Based Management. A video recording and transcript of the webinar can be downloaded at (Recordings and transcripts of previous MEAM webinars are also available there.)

In the excerpt below, Bud Ehler responds to a question on whether marine spatial planning (MSP) must be implemented in an ecosystem-based way to be effective – even in cases where the main uses of a particular ocean area are purely industrial, such as shipping, oil drilling, or offshore wind farms. Ehler said:

“We strongly advocate that marine spatial planning is an ecosystem-based approach. No matter what kinds of activities are carried out in a particular area, they are going to have an effect on the ecosystem services that are provided by that area. And no matter how small or large [a marine area is], there are ecosystem services that it provides. It is particularly important that those natural services are considered – that an attempt is made to maintain and to sustain those services that are critical in terms of not only the ecosystem but also the economy of marine areas.

“To add one point to that, a very important first step in any marine spatial planning process is the identification of biologically and ecologically significant areas. That is the basis for spatial planning. When you decide to create a wind farm or an oil and gas development area, the cumulative impacts on these ecologically and biologically important areas are considered and very well documented in MSP processes.”

BOX: A spectrum of marine spatial planning

MEAM views both ecosystem-based management and marine spatial planning as a process or journey rather than an endpoint. That journey involves a spectrum of effort. In the case of marine spatial planning, this ranges from little or no MSP in practice (the status quo in many places)…to incremental MSP (spatial planning for some uses of the marine environment but not others)…to comprehensive MSP that covers all relevant uses. The MSP spectrum might appear as follows:

Little or no MSP

Example: A minor degree of spatial planning is in place, perhaps in the form of a small marine protected area or a port. But there is no systematic effort to plan the use of the marine environment, balancing trade-offs among a range of sectors and needs.

Incremental MSP

Example: This could be a spatial plan that addresses offshore energy production and shipping lanes but does not yet cover other existing uses, such as commercial fishing. Incidentally, this is the case for the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan and Norway’s Barents Sea Plan. Although management in these cases has not addressed all uses, spatial trade-offs between two or more sectors have been considered and MSP is being practiced.

Comprehensive MSP

Example: In this case, the spatial plan addresses all uses of the marine environment in a particular area, including potential future uses and conditions.