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How to apply the ecosystem-based approach in Marine Spatial Planning

Finding space in the sea is a task easier said than done. Every inch of the ocean is dedicated to a specific activity, whether it is economic, social, or environmental. Shipping, fishing, sand, oil and gas extraction, wind parks, and marine protected areas are all competing in a limited space, defined by borders that are not always respected.

By Anouk Puymartin

With the limited space, the number of competing activities, and the difficulties to control what is going on at sea, it’s more and more challenging to ensure that nature at sea is protected.  

The push for “blue growth” has turned our ocean into a business opportunity with increased economic activities, such as wind parks and aquaculture.  

The private sector and some policy makers call these activities “necessary” in the fight against the climate crisis and nature crisis. But these new economic activities are competing with existing ones, such as fisheries and deep sea & seabed mining. Our ocean simply cannot sustain all these activities without it impacting its health, and regulation is critical to make sure our sea is protected. Marine Spatial Planning is a policy response to regulate these competing activities to guarantee the protection of nature at sea. In 2014, the EU adopted a Directive on Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP), asking Members States to submit national Marine Spatial Plans by 2021. It requires public authorities to apply an “ecosystem-based approach” when designing their plans at sea, without defining this term further. This ecosystem-based approach is supposed to contribute to the sustainable development of marine and coastal economies and ensure the sustainable use of marine and coastal resources and habitats.  

The ecosystem-based approach is the bedrock of Marine Spatial Planning to contribute towards healthy seas across Europe. While the ecosystem-based approach is a well-established concept, its precise application to MSP varies considerably between EU countries.  

With this paper, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia aims to inform the assessment of the Marine Spatial Plans that Member States are required to deliver by the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive and to highlight how MSP should be conducted to avoid damage to sensitive marine environments and to strengthen ocean resilience, especially in the context of climate change.

Picture: Mljet National Park ©Biljana Aljinovic

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