[Editor's note: Charles Ehler is president of Ocean Visions Consulting and a senior consultant on marine spatial planning to UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in Paris, France. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has supported his work at UNESCO since 2006.]

By Charles N. Ehler

Over the past decade, marine spatial planning (MSP) has been recognized internationally as an operational approach for implementing ecosystem-based management in marine areas. Several marine spatial plans have been completed; a few have already been implemented and revised. About 50 plans will be prepared over the next five years in at least 20 countries.

However, despite the increasing global implementation, many myths exist about MSP – promulgated by disparate parties interested either in promoting, or slowing and stopping, its application. This article identifies some of these myths and shows through international examples the realities of what MSP already is – or can be.

Myth No. 1: MSP is the ultimate goal.

Some interest groups advocate the delivery of MSP as the ultimate goal. However, establishing MSP should not be an end in itself, as establishing the MSP process does not guarantee actual outcomes. The real goals of MSP should be achieving outcomes such as sustainable fish populations, sustainable energy supplies, robust coastal and marine economies, reduced conflicts among human activities, and the maintenance of critical marine ecosystem services. Real outcomes, not the process, should be the goals of MSP.

Myth No. 2: MSP is only about planning.

MSP is sometimes characterized as only planning that results in little or no action toward real outcomes. This is particularly true when planning is extended over many years. An integrated planning process for Canada's Eastern Scotian Shelf took 10 years to move from initiation to the completion of a "strategic" plan that, among other recommendations, called for more planning.

MSP is really about marine spatial management. Marine spatial management consists of at least three distinct phases: (1) planning and analysis that generate information for developing a management plan; (2) implementation, including enforcement of management measures of the plan; and (3) monitoring and evaluation of plan performance that could result in changes to the plan over time. All of these elements of management must be carried out for MSP to be successful. It is not just about planning.

Myth No. 3: MSP will replace single-sector management.

MSP is often seen as a threat to the authority of existing governmental agencies and their authorities. However, in reality, integrated MSP will never have enough authority, information, or expertise to replace single-sector management, nor should it try. MSP will require participation and cooperation across governmental agencies; implementation of integrated plans will need the authorities of single-sector agencies to ensure the carrying out of management measures consistent with the plan. Sectoral planning and management will continue, but with a comprehensive vision of the future upon which to base incremental, single-sector decision-making.

Myth No. 4: MSP is anti-development.

Some interest groups and their advocates characterize MSP as "anti-development" and biased toward marine conservation. Anyone who thinks MSP is biased against development should have a look at the management plans for the seas of Norway and the Netherlands. The Norwegian integrated management plan identifies one of its goals as "harvesting of living marine resources to promote value creation and secure welfare and business development to the benefit of the country as a whole". The Government of the Netherlands goes further in identifying a goal "…to enhance the economic importance of the North Sea…by developing…sustainable economic activities…." That language is hardly anti-development.

Myth 5: MSP is a "win-win" process.

Some advocates of MSP promise that it will result only in outcomes in which all interests win. However, MSP is about the allocation of marine spaces to specific uses (wind farms, marine reserves, pipeline corridors) or goals (development areas, protected areas, security areas). As marine space is allocated, some users will win; some will lose. While some uses may be compatible with others, some uses will preclude others.

It is important that MSP management measures are evaluated not only for their effectiveness in achieving management objectives and their efficiency (achieving management objectives at least cost), but also their equity (who benefits, who loses) before implementation.

Myth No. 6: MSP will lead to more government regulations.

MSP should not lead to more "blue tape". In fact, regulations can be reduced and certainly made more efficient through MSP. In almost every application, existing regulations will be used to implement marine spatial plans. Developing an integrated plan can reduce redundant requirements for data collection and environmental impact reviews. Proposals for development projects in marine areas that have been designated for general development or specific uses should receive expedited reviews, i.e., streamlined permitting.

Myth No. 7: MSP is the same as marine protected area planning.

Many users of marine areas often express concern that MSP is simply "back-door" planning for marine protected areas with the goal of closing large areas of the ocean to other users. In fact, MSP is multi-objective planning that seeks to integrate and balance economic, social, and environmental objectives through an integrated plan. The appropriate "balance" among the goals and objectives should be determined by active stakeholder participation throughout the MSP process.

However, identifying ecologically and environmentally important areas is an important analytical activity early in the MSP process, and a network of MPAs is often one output of MSP. Over the past 10 years, Australia has been actively developing marine planning for its entire exclusive economic zone. A major output of the Australian bioregional planning process will be a representative national network of MPAs. Experience shows that MPAs are more effectively planned and managed in the context of MSP.

Myth No. 8: MSP is only about maps.

MSP is not just about producing maps. In fact, drawing lines on maps can be counter-productive early in the MSP process, as shown in several attempts to identify marine reserves in California, and more recently the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Maps help recognize and visualize the patterns and processes that occur in time and space and are invaluable at the appropriate time in the MSP process, especially when stakeholders participate. Mapping important biological or ecological areas in time and space (such as fish spawning areas) and areas of special economic interest to human activities (such as areas of sustained winds) are important MSP activities. However, geospatial information systems and decision support technologies are only tools for analysis and planning – not ends in themselves.

Myth No. 9: MSP is too complicated.

MSP should be based on the best information available. Opponents of MSP often try to discredit the process by arguing that we do not have enough information to start the process, and that we should not begin until "better" information is available. Most of the time additional data collection will contribute very little to reducing the uncertainty of management decisions, at least in the short run. In fact, we often have more information than we need for the first round of planning. The best way to find out what you really need and may not know is simply to begin planning.

Myth No. 10: MSP is too expensive.

Opponents of MSP often argue that the process is too expensive. However, the relevant question is, expensive compared to what? Planning efforts by single-sector agencies often carry out duplicative research and data collection with each other that could be reduced through integrated planning across agencies. If agreement is reached on where development can take place with least environmental impact, costs to the private sector for environmental reviews and impact assessments of development projects can be reduced. Developers often spend millions of dollars and years of time in preparing permit applications and reviews. These costs can be reduced through a streamlined permitting process based on an integrated plan for a marine area.

For example, in Germany an environmental assessment for a wind farm permit costs about US $1.4 million to prepare. Because the national government has already prepared a "strategic environmental assessment" for its marine spatial plans that includes the designation of priority areas for wind farms, costs of preparing and reviewing permits proposed in a pre-approved area have been reduced or eliminated.

Since MSP is a new field, few data exist in terms of overall cost. However, the United Kingdom estimates that the one-time costs of setting up its marine planning system at around £34 million (US $54 million) and the operational costs of maintaining the system to be around £1 million (US $1.6 million) per year. At the same time, the benefits of a UK marine planning system are estimated to be around £47 million (US $74 million).

Myth No. 11: MSP is the same as "ocean zoning".

MSP is often characterized as "ocean zoning". However, if land use planning is used as an analogy for MSP, then MSP is equivalent to the process of "comprehensive planning", not ocean zoning. Zoning is simply one tool with which to implement MSP. We already designate a large number of "zones" in the ocean, e.g., marine protected areas, traffic separation lanes, dredged material dump sites, exclusionary zones around wind farms, and fishery closure areas. These zones are often designated with little if any consideration of other human uses in the same area. The result of zoning without MSP is a chaotic pattern of overlapping and conflicting zones.

Myth No. 12: MSP is always "top-down".

It is true that most marine spatial plans have been developed at the national level, led by national governmental agencies. However in Sweden about 180 local governments have responsibility for marine planning, although only a few have exercised it. (As a result, a Swedish Commission on the Marine Environment recently recommended that the national government should have overarching responsibility for planning in the entire Swedish marine area, and further, that planning should be conducted on a regional basis rather than by the municipalities.)

An example of where a "bottom-up" approach is working well is the MSP activities of Coastal First Nations – an alliance of indigenous communities along the marine waters of British Columbia, Canada. During the past five years, each of the 12 Coastal First Nations communities has developed a marine plan. This local capacity is now being scaled up to the regional level.

Myth No. 13: MSP is not needed today.

The argument is often heard that if a particular region has no problems today, MSP is not needed: Why invest in MSP if the level of human activity is small, or if there are no conflicts among human uses or between human activities and nature? In fact, the best time to begin planning is before problems arise.

No place illustrates the need for MSP more than the Arctic. Driven by outside economic forces and the effects of climate change, the Arctic, its ecosystems, and its people face substantial change, including the loss of natural services provided by Arctic ecosystems. Once new economic activities begin in the Arctic, it will be difficult for policy makers and managers to put limits on them.

Planning for the future begins today. Avoiding future problems through decisions taken today is a smart way to do business.


Emerging lessons about good practices from actual experience can be used to dispel most of these myths about MSP. As the French novelist Victor Hugo said, "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." MSP is clearly an idea whose time has come.

For more information:

Charles Ehler, Ocean Visions, Paris, France. E-mail: charles.ehler@mac.com