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golden north sea beach, Denmark, by Magnetismus, www.flickr.com/photos/magnetismus/6175142092, cropped

In its most simple sense Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is planning for the sea. It aims to regulate human activity in the marine environment. Human activity can range from leisure pursuits to industrial development. MSP determines when and where these activities can take place, and what policies and key data lie behind the plan.

Ideally, MSP provides a framework for deciding between competing human activities and for sustainably managing the marine environment. Instead of treating each piece of marine legislation as a standalone law, MSP takes an overview of all the activities and stakeholders in a particular part of the sea. The result is a more co-ordinated approach to how our oceans are used.

MSP is constantly evolving. The development of legislation and policies is based upon a process of ongoing consultation with key stakeholders. This ensures that MSP remains public and participatory.

The area covered by MSP can include the sea, the seabed and the coast. It aims to link and co-ordinate with land use planning although normally it is a separate system.

Historically, the sea was treated as a free and almost endless resource. There has been a realisation that this is not the case. Different stakeholders in the sea find that their needs come into conflict with each other. Different activities have competing claims. Unregulated use of the marine environment can also damage ecosystems.

An important convention that applies internationally is the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea 1982. This provides a legal framework for the areas to be covered by Marine Spatial Planning and also provides the law to establish maritime boundaries. It determined the boundaries for the:

  • Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

This goes from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles. This is unless another country's EEZ overlaps with it. In that case, the countries themselves agree where the boundary lies. Within their EEZ a state has special rights over marine resources.

  • Territorial Sea

This covers the area from the baseline out to 12 nautical miles. It belongs exclusively to that state and they exercise authority over it.

The European Union has also set out certain regulations and laws about the implementation of Marine Spatial Planning. Key among them were:

This introduced a framework for Maritime Spatial Planning across all EU countries. It aims to promote sustainable use and development of marine areas and resources. It also set out certain minimum requirements.

Although this does not specify a need for MSP, it does require that EU member states achieve Good Environmental Status by 2020. In essence Good Environmental Status means clean, healthy, sustainably-managed seas with a diverse range of species. Many EU countries are using MSP to achieve this.

EU member states have to ensure that the Natura 2000 sites are managed sustainably. Almost 6% of the EU's maritime area are Natura 2000 sites.

Progress in MSP has been mixed so far, varying from country to country. Select a country or nation/region in order to read about the progress that has been made.