By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor. E-mail:

The most natural, organic way of allocating space and resources in the ocean is to start with zoning based on existing patterns of use. Be warned, however: this "easy" solution can be dangerous. We run great risk by codifying patterns of use through zoning when we do not take the time to understand why those patterns are the way they are. In effect, we may lend permanence and credibility to ways of using ocean resources and space that are haphazard at best and, at worst, highly damaging to marine ecosystems.

Patterns of ocean use arise from an array of factors:

  • Logistics (distance from ports, ease of navigation, access to coastlines or habitats)
  • Need or demand for resources, wealth, and access to technology
  • De facto protections resulting from avoidance of danger or conflict
  • Cultural beliefs
  • Existing rules and regulations

Most coasts and oceans have been used for millennia by a growing number of diverse users doing different things. So the patterns we see today are rarely the result of careful, science-based planning. When planning has occurred, it has often been driven by one or more sectoral management authorities, or by an influential user group's interests and impacts – hence the clear need for integrated marine spatial planning. Although MSP is still a young field, there are already cases where initial spatial planning needed to be amended – and existing use patterns altered – to meet management objectives. One example is Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (US): several years after the site's initial planning, existing shipping lanes had to be moved to minimize conflicts with whales, the focus of MPA management (

Mozambique example

Using MSP to achieve effective EBM is not easy, and agencies with limited budgets will inevitably look for shortcuts based on existing use patterns. Witness the research of planner Jim Dobbin. In northern coastal Mozambique, he found that the current distribution of villages provided an inappropriate basis for zoning for sustainable development. The reason for existing patterns of use there is historical: colonial engineers built roads on dry, sandy soils (avoiding river valleys and wet areas) in order to extend the season for moving goods and people from land-locked countries in the interior to the coast. Eventually villages grew up along the road system as civil war in the interior led people to escape toward the coast. However, the most fertile lands for subsistence agriculture, and the most useful access points to aquatic and marine resources, are far from these areas. Today, well-intentioned international agencies and NGOs are perpetuating these existing patterns of development by funding schools, clinics, and wells – keeping villagers in these unsustainable areas. If Mozambique is committed to developing the region, it will need to foster new use patterns based on real resource opportunities and constraints.

Similarly, existing patterns of commercial fisheries exploitation worldwide – and especially in areas with ever-intensifying races to fish – may not be sustainable. Often this brings costs in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services that would be difficult to justify in the bright light of rational, science-based decision-making.

Conversely many existing conservation measures, including biodiversity protection via no-take reserves, may not be ideally placed. In some instances, a no-take reserve is implemented in an area where it is easiest to achieve that end (i.e., areas where fishery activity or multiple use conflicts are absent). In other instances, it may be the right target area, but the threat that puts the area at risk is not the threat being addressed by the no-take restrictions.

The practical reality is that however necessary strategic ocean zoning is, it cannot start from scratch, reallocating people as if no historical patterns of use existed. The optimal must be weighed against the practical. So the feasibility of changing patterns of use must be taken into account. This leads us to a fundamental question: how should ocean zoning be optimally used to enable MSP objectives to be met? Circumstances will vary, and no two planning entities will take the same path in utilizing the zoning tool. But a standardized process could help planners realize the potential of zoning. Integral to this process would be:

  • Understanding (and mapping) existing patterns of use and impacts;
  • Identifying (and mapping) ecologically critical and sensitive areas; and
  • Developing multiple zoning options with scenarios that show costs and benefits of each.

In places where effective zoning has been achieved, bringing us closer to EBM, these steps have been followed – with planners opting out of the easy but dangerous paradigm of zoning built on existing uses.

[Editor's note: Tundi Agardy authored Ocean Zoning: Making Marine Management More Effective, published in 2010. It is available on]