Ecosystem-based Maritime Spatial Planning in Europe and how to assess it

Posted on 01 April 2021

Ecosystem-based Maritime Spatial Planning plays a pivotal role in the future of our ocean.
According to the European Commission, the European Blue Economy has grown by 15% since 2009, generating 5 million in sectors including coastal tourism, shipping, fisheries and ocean energy.

Growth in the blue economy sectors goes hand in hand with spatial expansion ⁠— the more activities there are at sea, the more space is needed to accommodate them. Yet, as any resource, space is not an indefinite commodity and European seas are already counted amongst some of the most intensively used maritime areas in the world. 

Simultaneously, Europe's marine biodiversity continues to decline, and most marine ecosystems are under significant and adverse pressure. The objective to reach “Good Environmental Status (GES) of EU seas” by 2020 as per the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) has not been reached, due to a combination of the failure to reduce multiple human pressures, such as eutrophication or overfishing, and climate change.

A healthy ocean is, however, vital to address the challenges both our societies and nature face. It is key to alleviating the impacts of climate change, fighting biodiversity loss and ensuring food security for many of our  communities. It also constitutes the cornerstone of a resilient sustainable blue economy. On the other hand, an unbalanced and poorly managed growth of economic activities at sea will only magnify and accelerate the negative effects of human activity on marine ecosystems. Weakened ecosystems will in turn negatively affect our societies, as fewer benefits will be derived from weakened and therefore less productive seas.

Ecosystem-based Maritime Spatial Planning (EB MSP) plays a pivotal role in the future of our ocean. While supporting the sustainable development of blue economy activities, MSP can be used to ensure there is space for nature to thrive and recover. In particular, applying an Ecosystem-based approach (EBA) to MSP is instrumental in ensuring both a sustainable development of the Blue Economy while preserving marine and coastal ecosystems and their services.

Based on the legal requirements of the EU MSP Directive and expert input from the WWF EU network, this paper serves as a guide on the topic of EB MSP in the EU and offers a method for assessing the Maritime Spatial Plans of Member States as the EU strives to meet the targets of the EU Green Deal and EU Biodiversity Strategy, in addition to its voluntary commitments to the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda. 
Container port on the North Sea, Antwerp, Belgium
© Michel Gunther / WWF