Marine Spatial Planning

From Beachapedia


It’s getting crowded out there in the ocean. No, we’re not talking about the lineup at your local break.

For centuries, the oceans have pretty much been regarded as the ultimate “wild west” where anything goes. But now we’re rapidly discovering that the ocean’s resources are not limitless, and that we can negatively affect conditions in the ocean and the viability of some “ocean uses” through the improper placement and implementation of other uses. There are several new proposed uses of the ocean (alternative energy projects, LNG facilities, aquaculture projects) that are in many cases competing for the same space or potentially impacting more traditional ocean activities, including commercial and recreational fishing, boating, shipping, recreation (swimming, surfing, diving, kayaking, etc.), and oil and gas exploration and production. And many uses are potentially in conflict with maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems, increasing the need to set aside networks of Marine Protected Areas. How do we avoid ocean sprawl?

Marine Spatial Planning

A logical response to these increasing demands on the ocean is to institute a planning process for the near-shore ocean (the state waters for each ocean coastal state) that is similar to land use planning that states, counties and cities engage in. A Marine Spatial Planning toolkit developed by the Ecosystem Based Management Tools Network summarizes the situation this way and offers a definition Marine Spatial Planning:

The health of marine ecosystems is declining, and use conflicts in the marine environment are increasing, in part because of new needs for ocean space for emerging industries such as wind and wave energy and aquaculture. Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is a process for analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives. Well-conducted MSP can:

  • Reduce conflicts between users and increase regulatory efficiency
  • Facilitate the development of emerging industries such as wind and wave energy and aquaculture
  • Help maintain ecological processes and the ecosystem services they support (such as fishing, marine tourism and recreation, and cultural uses of the ocean).

Marine Spatial Planning can also be thought of as a means on implementing ecosystem-based management, which 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."

Marine spatial planning is strongly supported by those who make their living off the ocean, study the ocean, and enjoy the ocean. You can read stories from many of these people from all walks of life at Keep the Ocean Working, including one from Surfrider Foundation's Matt Gove.

Marine Spatial Planning is not just an issue along the coasts of the United States. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom has developed this definition:

“strategic, forward-looking planning for regulating, managing and protecting the marine environment, including through allocation of space, that addresses the multiple, cumulative, and potentially conflicting uses of the sea”

In addition, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has released a guide entitled Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-Based Management. The guide defines marine spatial planning, describes why it is needed, details its benefits and outputs, and illustrates how it relates to other marine management approaches.

National Efforts

President Barack Obama issued a June 12, 2009 memo that called for the creation of a special Ocean Policy Task Force to develop a "framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning." That framework should include an "ecosystem-based approach that addresses conservation, economic activity, user conflict and sustainable use," according to the memo. On July 31, 2009 Surfrider Foundation and two other organizations submitted a comment letter to Ms. Nancy Sutley, who is Chair of both the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Interagency Task Force on Ocean Policy. That letter stated, in part:

“The President’s Memorandum invites comments on the use of ecosystem-based management and Marine Spatial Planning in setting ocean policy. Ecosystem-based management (EBM) is an integrated approach to sustaining the health of our natural environment and the human uses that are dependent upon it. Unlike conventional management, EBM looks at the full spectrum of activities occurring (or proposed) within an area, and develops a comprehensive strategy for lasting stewardship. Marine Spatial Planning is an integrated approach to management of the ocean environment that uses EBM.
Our oceans and coasts are facing increasing pressure from existing uses such a shipping, fishing and recreational boating, and from new uses such as alternative ocean energy, renewed interest in oil and gas drilling and offshore aquaculture. We support the use of Marine Spatial Planning as an important tool to balance existing and new ocean uses with protection, conservation and restoration of ecologically important ocean and coastal habitats.
The Task Force’s work is an important part of this effort. A strong National Ocean Policy built on Marine Spatial Planning, combined with improved coordination amongst all federal, state and local agencies with jurisdiction, will be needed to protect our ocean ecosystems and dependent coastal communities.”

In September 2011 the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee published Recommendations for the Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning Process.

In January 2012 the National Ocean Council released a National Ocean Policy Draft Implementation Plan. That document states:

"The NOC is developing a Handbook for Regional Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (Handbook) to assist regional planning bodies with the CMSP process. As called for in the CMSP Framework, the Handbook will provide further guidance and information intended to support the regional planning process, identify potential ways could enhance regional efforts, and provide more detailed information about visualization and analytical tools and their development to help compare proposed alternatives for future ocean uses."

A short film from Rhode Island Sea Grant, Protecting Our Oceans Through Marine Spatial Planning, focuses on protecting ocean environments so they remain healthy and able to support the food, job, transportation and energy needs of economies worldwide. It is the final installation of a four-part series that explores ocean planning with practitioners from around the world. Visit this site to view the film and the previous three pieces:

  • America’s Ocean Economy: Challenges and Opportunities: Introduces ocean planning as a tool for ocean managers and a wide range of public and private partners to collaborate on ways to share and protect ocean resources, such as fishing stocks, shipping lanes and recreational areas.
  • Advancing the Ocean Economy: Renewable Energy: Presents offshore renewable energy issues as they relate to ocean planning, and shows how coastal communities in the U.S. and overseas are turning to these resources, such as wind power, to support jobs and industries.
  • Ocean Planning: Enhancing and Protecting out Fisheries: Offers thinking from practitioners about how ocean planning – with its emphasis on integration across multiple resources and user groups – could help solve complicated economic, social and environmental issues challenging the fishing industry.

Our friends at NRDC have put together information on ocean planning that includes a short video that does a good job of framing the issues surrounding Marine Spatial Planning.

Regional and State Efforts

Collaborative ocean planning is being voluntarily undertaken for federal waters (3-200 nautical miles offshore) in several regions across the United States, facilitated by a group of federal, state, fishery management council, and tribal partners in each region. In addition, a handful of states have taken the initiative to develop plans for their own state and coastal waters (0-3 nautical miles offshore). Because ocean planning is voluntary and only done at the request of the states or regions, different regions are at various stages of the planning process. The following regions and their partner states are currently undertaking or have finalized state or regional ocean plans.


A Northeast Regional Ocean Plan is being developed by six states – Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont – along with federal, fishery management council, and tribal partners. The Northeast anticipates finalizing their plan by the end of 2016. Read the final plan.

In addition to the regional plan for federal waters, several individual states are also planning for their state ocean waters:

  • Massachusetts – Massachusetts Ocean Plan (Plan completed in 2009; review and update of the plan in 2015)
  • Rhode Island – Rhode Island Special Area Management Plan (plan completed in 2010; review and update of the plan in 2015)
  • Connecticut – Blue Plan for Long Island Sound (initial planning underway in 2015)


A Mid-Atlantic Ocean Plan is being developed by six states – New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania – along with federal, fishery management council, and tribal partners. The Mid-Atlantic anticipates finalizing their plan by the end of 2016. Read the final plan.

In addition to the regional plan for federal waters, New York and Connecticut are planning for their state ocean waters:

West Coast

California, Oregon, and Washington, along with tribal, fishery management council, and federal partners, are currently in the early stages of a regional ocean planning effort for federal waters.

In addition to the regional plan for federal waters, two of the three West Coast states are planning for their state ocean waters:

  • Washington – Washington State Marine Spatial Planning (Initiated in 2010; first iteration of the plan complete in 2016)
  • Oregon Territorial Sea Plan (Initiated in 1991; planning complete in 1994; review and update of the plan in 2008 and ongoing)

Great Lakes

Regional Lakes Partnership: Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Team

Pacific Islands

The Pacific Islands of Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands are currently in the early stages of regional ocean planning efforts for federal waters.


A Caribbean Ocean Plan is being developed by the Territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico along with federal, state, territory, and fishery management council partners.

More State Program Information


In Massachusetts, the Oceans Act of 2008 requires the state to develop a first-in-the-nation comprehensive plan to manage development in its state waters, balancing natural resource preservation with traditional and new uses, including renewable energy. The Ocean Management Plan (promulgated on December 31, 2009) was developed by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs in consultation with a 17-member ocean advisory commission and an ocean science advisory council. The final plan was approved in December 2009. Following is an excerpt from the Executive Summary of the Draft Plan (June 2009):

“The ocean plan combines elements of both designated-area and performance standard-based management by establishing three categories of management area: Prohibited, Regional Energy, and Multi-Use. Under this approach, special, sensitive or unique natural resources and important existing water-dependent uses are provided enhanced protection in the siting, development, and operation of new uses, facilities, and activities. Renewable energy facilities are screened through strict compatibility criteria, and—for commercial-scale wind projects—facilities are allowed only in designated areas. The majority of state waters in the planning area remain open to uses, activities and facilities as allowed under the Ocean Sanctuaries Act, which preserves opportunity for new and emerging uses and flexibility for future changes based on new data and technologies and social values that will change over time.”

In January 2015 the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) released the first update to the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan. The review and update included a comprehensive assessment of ocean plan progress to date, as well as extensive public and expert participation efforts. The 2015 Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan contains the following updates to the original plan: new data and trends on ocean habitats and ecosystems, human uses, economics, cultural and archeological aspects, and climate change; preliminary offshore wind transmission corridor routes for further investigation; initial planning and analysis for appropriate potential locations for offshore sand areas for beach nourishment; and a fee structure and guidance for required mitigation fees for ocean development projects. For more information on the review and update process, see the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan website, which also includes links to the final 2015 ocean plan, 2009 ocean plan, 2014 draft plan, data, and other relevant documents.

Marine spatial1.gif

Rhode Island

Rhode Island has developed an Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) to define use zones for Rhode Island’s ocean waters through a research and planning process that integrates the best available science with open public input and involvement. These use zones are intended to protect or enhance current uses, including habitat and commercial and recreational uses, while providing for future uses, such as renewable energy development. Leading this project is the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state’s coastal management agency. Here is the SAMP Map Viewer. The Ocean SAMP was approved by CRMC in October 2010 and by NOAA in July 2011.

Check out this video that tells the story of the creation of this management plan and how it can help map the future of Rhode Island’s waters.

In 2013 Rhode Island Sea Grant released The Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan: Managing Ocean Resources through Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (PDF, 5.36 MB), a guide that describes the adopted Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) and the process and strategies for its development. This practitioner’s guide offers lessons learned throughout the process, which included the development of a research agenda, identification of experts, involvement of stakeholders, implementation of the plan, and assessment of the outcomes. For more information about the Plan, visit the Rhode Island Sea Grant’s Ocean SAMP webpage.

New York

As part of the work of the New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council, a report Our Waters, Our Communities, Our Future was submitted to the Governor and Legislature in April 2009. The report is based on Council work done over a two-year period through public dialogues, working groups, advisory groups, community groups, public review and other efforts. The report attempts to capture the range of pressing issues facing New York’s ocean and Great Lakes, their basins, and their communities and recommends priority actions to move forward efficiently and effectively.

A follow-on effort is the New York Ocean Action Plan (OAP) released in draft form by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of State (DOS) in January 2015. The OAP is focused on improving the health of New York’s offshore ocean ecosystems and their capacity to provide sustainable benefits to New Yorkers. Together, scientists, resource managers, and a wide range of stakeholders will take stock of New York’s ocean-related activities and programs. The OAP promotes the concept of Ecosystem-Based Management.


In Oregon, on October 16, 2008, the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) directed the Department of Land Conservation and Development to initiate a Territorial Sea Plan administrative rulemaking project. The project is intended to develop mandatory policies that will apply to state and federal agency approvals for the location and operation of ocean-based energy power generation facilities in the Oregon Territorial Sea. On December 5, 2008, LCDC appointed an advisory committee to advise the department and the Commission. Based on input and recommendations from the committee, LCDC anticipates adopting new or amended administrative rules in December 2009. Oregon has a long history of ocean planning that resulted in a Territorial Sea Plan adopted in 1994. That document noted:

“The Council was unable to address many ocean-resource management issues during preparation of the initial plan. Therefore, the Council will continue to refine and add to the Territorial Sea Plan through plan amendments and updates to address such issues as kelp-reef special-area management, mariculture, seabed leasing, marine water quality and sewerage outfalls, dredged material disposal, ocean structures, oil and gas exploration, marine minerals, and ocean hazards. The Council is charged by law with providing the Governor with policy advice on ocean matters including new ones that will undoubtedly emerge over time.”

Marine spatial2.jpg


NOAA's National Marine Protected Areas Center has released the results of the Hawaii Coastal Use Mapping Project. The project - a collaboration between the Marine Protected Areas Center, NOAA’s Pacific Island Regional Office, the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, and NOAA’s Special Projects Office - mapped 16 different uses, representing the majority of human ocean activities off the Northwestern Coast of Hawaii's "Big Island." Use data was collected during a three-day participatory mapping workshop with local experts held in September 2010. To learn more detailed project information, see use patterns in a map booklet, access spatial data viewable with GIS software and in Google Earth, and to launch an interactive data viewer, visit The Hawaii Coastal Use Mapping Project. The data viewer, built by NOAA’s Special Projects Office, allows interaction with project data and simple analysis of use patterns without the need for specialized software.

A somewhat related program is the Ocean Resources Management Plan which is a statewide plan mandated by Chapter 205A, Hawaii Revised Statutes. It represents a significant change in the way Hawaii approaches natural and cultural resources management in response to public concerns that the existing functional management system was not working effectively. It is based on a three-perspective framework:

  • Perspective 1: Connecting Land and Sea;
  • Perspective 2: Preserving Hawaii's Ocean Heritage; and
  • Perspective 3: Promoting Collaboration and Stewardship.

Other States

Other states where Marine Spatial Planning (sometimes also referred to as Ocean Management, Ocean Planning or Ocean Zoning) efforts have been initiated include Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) Portal is an online toolkit and resource center that consolidates available data and enables state, federal and local users to visualize and analyze ocean resources and human use information such as fishing grounds, recreational areas, shipping lanes, habitat areas, and energy sites, among others. In California, efforts are underway to begin to implement a workplan for Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning. Meanwhile, the Oceans Program under the California Natural Resources Agency includes the state's network of Marine Protected Areas.

Source: Aquarium of the Pacific

Check out this video on Washington's Marine Spatial Planning process:

NOAA's Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning website provides a useful summary of regional and state Marine Spatial Planning activities.

The National Marine Protected Areas Center's Ocean Uses Atlas Project helps address a critical information gap in ocean management by mapping, for the first time, the full range of significant human uses of the ocean. Spatial data for nearly 30 ocean uses have been gathered through a series of participatory mapping workshops convened with regional ocean use experts in California and New Hampshire/Southern Maine. You can download spatial data, view mapping products, and access interactive online mapping tools for both areas by clicking on the state links.


Economic benefits associated with Marine Spatial Planning have been examined in a technical paper "Ecosystem service tradeoff analysis reveals the value of marine spatial planning for multiple ocean uses" published in early 2012. From the abstract of that paper:

"...we show that using MSP over conventional planning could prevent >$1 million dollars in losses to the incumbent fishery and whale-watching sectors and could generate >$10 billion in extra value to the energy sector. The value of MSP increased with the greater the number of sectors considered and the larger the area under management."


Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is a necessary and important process being implemented at both the state and national levels to help ensure that we can continue to make use of the ocean’s resources and enjoy the ocean without degrading those resources. MSP provides Surfrider Foundation chapters an opportunity to secure protections for special places (priority ecological & recreational areas) through participation in regional stakeholder processes. Such a role is fully appropriate given the significant ecological and socio-economic benefits these places provide. Surfrider Foundation activists and all those concerned about continued protection and enjoyment of the ocean, waves and beaches are encouraged to follow and participate in the Marine Spatial Planning process.


The Ecosystem Based Management Tools Network has developed tools for Marine Spatial Planning.

The Center for Ocean Solutions has developed a Decision Guide for Selecting Decision Support Tools for Marine Spatial Planning.

The National Ocean Council has released a Marine Planning Handbook (PDF, 146 KB) to support the efforts of regions that are interested in establishing regional planning bodies and developing marine plans. The document provides information on how to advance priorities while ensuring a transparent, participatory, science-based process. The handbook supplements the discussion of marine planning in the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan (PDF, 4.5 MB) and is based on extensive public and stakeholder input.

UNESCO Marine Spatial Planning Initiative

Zoning the Oceans: The Next Big Step in Coastal Zone Management (American Bar Association) is intended to help experts and government planners use zoning as a vehicle for ocean development and management. It is claimed to be the first book to focus on new and emerging state ocean zoning programs in the context of recent developments in offshore coastal zone regulation at the state and federal levels.

National Marine Protected Areas Center California Ocean Uses Atlas and New Hampshire and Southern Maine Ocean Uses Atlas. Also see their document Mapping Human Uses of the Ocean, Informing Marine Spatial Planning Through Participatory GIS

Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee Recommendations for the Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning Process

Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan

Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan

New York Ocean Action Plan

Oregon Ocean Planning and Management

California Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning Workplan Memo

Regional Ocean Plans and more from Keep the Ocean Working

NOAA Marine Spatial Planning

NOAA Coastal Services Center Marine Spatial Planning Stakeholder Analysis (pdf)

NOAA Coastal Services Center A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone (pdf)

The website was developed by NOAA and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to support offshore renewable energy development.

This article is part of a series on the Ocean Ecosystem looking at the various species of plants and animals which depend on a healthy coast and ocean environment, and the threats that can be posed to them by human activity

For information about laws, policies and conditions impacting the beach ecology of a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Beach Ecology" indicator link.