Planning maritime spaces is something of a balancing act

Maritime spatial planning involves a highly diverse group of stakeholders, from fishers and aquaculture, energy and shipping companies to ecologists and those who use the coast and ocean for leisure and recreation. Not to forget the people who live nearby the sea. Add to that various authorities on different levels, often from more than one country, and you have yourself a typical stakeholder involvement process in maritime spatial planning. BONUS BASMATI has developed a handbook that helps organise this complex process.

Spatial concepts that define the use of the sea

“What’s interesting about maritime spatial planning is that it’s an entirely new field of expertise,” says Alberto Giacometti, Research Fellow at Nordregio. “Maritime activities have of course always been regulated, both nationally and through international agreements. This has mostly been done at a sectoral level, with specific rules and regulations for individual sectors, such as the fisheries, shipping and energy sectors, whereas maritime spatial planning endorses a more democratic approach to the planning.”

Simply put, says Andrea Morf, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio, maritime spatial planning is the process of agreeing on the shared use of maritime space, also across borders. Among the complicating factors are the shifting and dynamic nature of the ocean and its biological resources and society’s use thereof, but also that the different maritime zones are managed differently from country to country.

“It’s an approach to devise spatial concepts that define the use of the sea and coastal space in a way that’s in concert with the overall aims of society,” says Morf, “These aims are frequently related to the three pillars of sustainability: the economic, ecological and social. In BONUS BASMATI, we’ve linked maritime spatial planning with ecosystem services, aiming to harvest the marine resources as efficiently as possible, albeit in a long-term sustainable manner.”

Clear objectives for stakeholder involvement

Nordregio’s work in BONUS BASMATI has focused specifically on stakeholder involvement. Drawing on first-hand experiences from key planners in the Baltic Sea Region, the research team has produced a handbook to assist planning authorities in organising the different phases of the stakeholder involvement process.

“Since the EU Directive for Maritime Spatial Planning was adopted in 2014, all European countries have had to establish an appropriate institutional and administrative setup for maritime spatial planning,” Giacometti says, adding that the choice of setup indicates the priorities of each country. “In some countries, the planning authority lies with the ministry of environment, while in others, it lies with the ministry of business or transport, for example, due to important sector interests.”

When the institutional setup is in place, the next step is to define clear objectives for what the authorities want to achieve with the maritime spatial planning and the stakeholder involvement. In many cases, stakeholder involvement is required by law, but the objective could also be to gather important knowledge, data and technical information or encourage stakeholders to identify new opportunities in coastal and maritime environments.

“Then, after mapping your stakeholders and clarifying the scope and objectives of the planning and stakeholder involvement, you can identify who should be involved, when and how,” Giacometti explains. “You need to build a strategy and a clear timeline with well-defined targets, events and processes, all of which need to be closely linked to an overall communication strategy.”

Defining the degree of involvement

The handbook divides the maritime spatial planning process into four stages: a scoping phase, plan drafting and consultation, implementation and evaluation. Moreover, it introduces two central models for the planning and stakeholder involvement process, a Process loop of maritime spatial planning and integrated coastal zone management, a cyclical diagram that illustrates the entire planning process, and a Stairway of participation in MSP, which addresses the degree of stakeholder involvement and influence.

“On one hand, you have mandated authority stakeholders and some very powerful sector interests, such as shipping, offshore fisheries and wind power, which are usually relatively well organised,” Morf says. “On the other hand, you also have stakeholder groups that are internally diverse and far less organised, such as coastal residents and those engaged in recreational activities. In principle, all these stakeholders have the right to be informed, included and consulted in the planning process – the question is how you want to organise their involvement.”

Giacometti explains that when a stakeholder involvement process is launched, it is often with the aim to ensure that all stakeholders are involved on an equal basis, with similar opportunities to influence the process. In reality, however, this can be difficult to achieve.

“Even before the planning process starts, there are some hierarchies and conflicting interests, for example because of international legislation that defines priorities for the environment or for certain sectors, such as fisheries or shipping. On top of that, you have the political priorities of the government. While some governments emphasise environmental protection, others might be more interested in developing economic opportunities. The playing field is never equal.”

Managing input and evaluating the process

A task that is sometimes underestimated in spatial planning is collecting and managing the input and feedback from stakeholders. In the early stages of the planning process, stakeholders will typically provide important technical and sector-specific information, and in the drafting and consultation phase, planners will receive comments that need to be categorised and included in the plan.

“This can be a gigantic task, especially if you want to be systematic in using the feedback that you receive,” says Giacometti. “If the stakeholders feel that their feedback is not used, you will lose their trust very quickly. That being said, however, planners eventually have to make decisions. They will never have all the knowledge or scientific data about all possible effects of planning and licensing. Therefore, the aim should be to build as much consensus as possible by basing all decisions on the best available knowledge.”

The researchers emphasize the importance of evaluating and following up on the process.

“Stakeholder involvement has some general principles, which are described in the handbook, but it’s also highly context-dependent,” says Morf. “In BONUS BASMATI, we’ve emphasized the value of maritime spatial planning and systematic stakeholder engagement to balance the often conflicting goals of multiple interest groups. From a European viewpoint, we also stress the final steps: to observe, evaluate and reflect on the planning process for future improvement and learning.”

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