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Oceans and fisheries
News announcement21 February 2020Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries9 min read

Marine spatial planning: Sustainably managing our seas at global level

The blue economy is full of opportunities for low-carbon, sustainable growth. But to make sure that these activities do not clash for space or damage the marine environment, careful planning is needed. That is exactly what maritime spatial planning does. In this guest blog, the authors explore how the EU and international partners are planning the ocean.

The article was originally published in ECO Magazine (Jan/Feb 2020).

Alejandro Iglesias Campos, Aya Khalil, Michele Quesada da Silva, IOC-UNESCO, Julia Rubeck, DG MARE

Human wellbeing and prosperity are inextricably linked to the good health of the ocean, seas, coasts and related resources. Both through their conservation and sustainable use. Unfortunately, marine ecosystems are facing increasingly significant stress from climate change, habitat destruction and overexploitation, threatening the economic activities that rely upon these resources. At the same time, intensified human activities in coastal and marine waters lack, to achieve sustainability, the required integrated planning and decision-making, including transboundary coordination.

The expanding use of the ocean space show the increase of conflicts: amongst uses but also in between uses and nature. This requires specific plans to regulate and reduce human impacts.

Planning the ocean

Management approaches of the various resources, as well as environmental management bodies, continue today to be sectoral and largely limit their actions to regulatory control. Existing environmental policies for the conservation of nature, water and the marine environment address the diverse and complex nature of coastal areas and the marine environment; however, in many countries, planning policies have not yet developed a common spatial governance framework for these areas. Government actions tend to focus on visible problems of immediate concern and, therefore, are geared towards responding to environmental crises.

As a comprehensive approach to managing uses of the sea, marine spatial planning (MSP) is a public process of analysing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas. All this, in order to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives that are usually specified through a political process.

It plays a key role in supporting the development of sectors that have a high potential for sustainable jobs and economic growth linked with maritime activities – also known as ‘blue growth’ and ‘blue economy’ – while highlighting the need to consider climate change effects on the durability of sectorial approaches within existing blue economy strategies.

Countries have public and private institutions with the potential to contribute to this management approach for blue economy; still, institutional differences confuse powers and functions, making integrated management a difficult task.

By encouraging the creation of adequate coastal and ocean governance frameworks, ensuring ecosystem-based approach principles and putting them into practice, MSP enables the development of tools to assess the cumulative impacts and pressures of human activities in the sea through the improvement of knowledge, data and information on the land-sea interactions.

In turn, this ensures that the use of marine resources is ecologically sustainable and applying measures to reach good environmental status of the coastal and marine environment. It is possible to implement this approach regionally, nationally and locally through an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on sustainable development goals that is opened to all stakeholders.

As the world moves toward the implementation of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, more than ever MSP provides an effective framework to guide the sustainable development of the ocean and coasts and achieve global ocean governance goals.

A roadmap to implement by 2030

Based on successful experiences of cross-border and transboundary MSP projects, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO) and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE) have launched an MSProadmap, a joint initiative to support MSP internationally for the sustainable development of the blue economy.

More specifically, it aims at improving planning of sustainable economic activities at sea by promoting the establishment of MSP plans and creating an environment conducive to transnational cooperation through the development of international guidance for MSP. The objectives of this roadmap are being implemented through a project called MSPglobal and an international forum to share MSP practices under implementation worldwide (MSPforum).

The MSPglobal project includes two pilot cases implemented to create a repository of data, knowledge, policy and decision-making tools to strengthen national authorities’ data management capacities in the Western Mediterranean and the Southeast Pacific:

Western Mediterranean

The first pilot project is being deployed in the Western Mediterranean, covering Algeria, France, Italy, Malta, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia. Building on previous experiences in the region to promote good MSP practices, activities will be adapted to meet regional and national priorities and needs in the context of the Western Mediterranean.

The pilot project’s final objective is to formulate regional recommendations in line with the EU WestMED Initiative focusing on the development of the blue economy in the region, explore feasibility of MSP in the sea-basin, and wherever possible establish the first steps leading to the adoption of a roadmap on MSP in the Western Mediterranean.

Southeast Pacific

The second pilot project is being implemented in the Pacific coast of Latin America (Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru) with a specific cross-border exercise in the Historic Bay of the Gulf Guayaquil, a shared maritime area between Ecuador and Peru with a large number of coastal and maritime activities.

For Ecuador, the Gulf of Guayaquil represents the marine area with the highest productivity in terms of fisheries and aquaculture. For Peru, it represents an important fishing area that comprises the unique part of the country with mangrove ecosystem. In both countries, coastal communities rely and exert pressure on the ecosystem. Additionally, the water basins that feed the Gulf of Guayaquil are extensive and come from the Andes through agricultural fields and mining areas that carry pollutants, putting at risk the ecosystem services provided by the Gulf of Guayaquil.

The pilot project in the Southeast Pacific will identify and evaluate the current implementation of local, national and regional policies affecting the coastal and marine environment in order to provide policy guidance and the establishment of a common regional language for the development of MSP recommendations towards a sustainable blue economy in the region.

Global partnerships

To improve transboundary cooperation where it already exists and to promote MSP processes in areas where it is yet to be put in place, the European Commission could not see better partner than IOC-UNESCO. This is why MSPglobal will build on IOC-UNESCO’s leading work in the field, with the objective to triple the marine area benefiting from MSP effectively implemented by 2030 and cover 30% of maritime areas under national jurisdictions.

MSPglobal will also improve the understanding and governance of large marine ecosystems and regional seas, transboundary in nature, as harbours of biodiversity and providers of ecosystem services, including food security, shoreline protection, carbon sequestration and storage as well as recreational opportunities.

Different sets of activities are promoting a participative process that balances both bottom-up and top-down approaches. Expert and institutional meetings, stakeholder visits and training courses, among others, are contributing to defining the contents of an MSPglobal International Guidance on MSP while raising awareness among stakeholders of the importance of their involvement and the benefits that they will reap from MSP processes.

The initiative provides the context for active and effective participation of policy-makers, scientists, the private sector, civil society organisations and other stakeholders to improve governance at multiple levels and achieve an ecosystem-based approach in support of the sustainable blue economy.

Towards a global sustainable blue economy

The challenge is to integrate the concept into the strategic planning of a nation considering the unprecedented problems the marine ecosystems are facing. Still, in a sustainable manner and in combination with ecosystem-based management processes and tools, the blue economy becomes the most appropriate context for public and private interactions.

In Europe, six traditional and emerging sectors are considered the main pillars of the blue economy due to their high potential for the future. This includes marine living resources (fisheries and aquaculture, farming of fish, shellfish and marine plants), marine extraction of non-living resources (gravel, sand, zinc, cobalt, copper), maritime transport, port activities, shipbuilding and repair as well as coastal tourism. But also emerging sectors such as renewable energies (wind, waves, tides, biofuel), biotechnology (medicines, cosmetics, industrial enzymes). Worldwide, other sectors are also part of the blue economy and considered crucial for value and job creation: cargo and passenger transportation, traditional and commercial fisheries and offshore oil and gas platform.

Both marine spatial plans and the blue economy are initiatives led by public authorities to further harness the potential of ocean, seas and coastal areas for jobs, value and sustainability, as a response to the global changes which affect national interests.

Multi-Use of the ocean space

The multi use of the ocean space – with the increasing competitiveness and growth of maritime sectors that go with it – is developing rapidly, faster in any case than the reaction of national and regional authorities to accommodate the current and future needs into a practical and effective legal and regulatory framework. This requires solutions for the overlapping responsibilities of the public administrations and a response to sectors’ request to reduce bureaucracy and facilitate private investment attending the principles of sustainability and development.

Sea basins could be considered an appropriate scale to ensure tailored measures and to foster international cooperation to support marine spatial plans and blue economy initiatives benefiting neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, public authorities may adopt the necessary measures to ensure administrative simplification and transparency in order to ensure economic investments, job creation and preserving the ocean health.

Technological innovation and solutions are nowadays offered to diverse economic sectors in terms of efficiency, economic potential and reducing the impacts related to environmental policies, safety and security. Offshore multi-use platforms have been designed with the same purpose and allow different types of action with a joint funding and the coordination of public-private efforts, for example through the combination of offshore activities such as aquaculture, maritime transport and renewable energy in the same ocean space.

Worldwide, marine spatial planning is becoming progressively the natural framework to efficiently execute and develop the sustainable blue economy by reinforcing competitiveness and protecting the marine environment, an open and integrated institutional process in connection with the wide variety of existing regulatory frameworks on marine and maritime issues.

A key component in the process of using marine plans as a framework for sustainable blue economy initiatives is the knowledge and the access to official, transparent and accurate data and information with the aim of providing legal certainty and security, but also a transparent way to keep stakeholders and citizens engaged and informed.


The MSPglobal Initiative is co-financed by the European Maritime and Fisheries Funds of the European Union. It is designed to support the implementation of the Joint Roadmap to accelerate Marine/Maritime Spatial Planning processes worldwide, adopted by DG MARE and IOC-UNESCO as part of the conclusions of the 2nd International Conference on MSP, jointly organised in Paris in March 2017.

For more information, please contact MSPglobalatunesco [dot] org (MSPglobal[at]unesco[dot]org) or visit the project website at


The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) only and should not be considered as representative of the European Commission’s official position. The Commission cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information included in this article. Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on behalf of the Commission is responsible for the use that might be made of the information contained in this article.


Publication date
21 February 2020
Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries