Assessing the environmental credentials of marine spatial plans in Europe

In accordance with the EU MSP directive all EU coastal member states were required to produce marine spatial plans by 2021. Not all have met this deadline but many are now published and adopted by national governments. A key requirement of the MSP directive is that marine spatial plans follow an ecosystem-based approach and contribute to the achievement of Good Environmental Status for marine ecosystems, as set out in the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Over the last nine months or so, I have been engaged in the evaluation of selected national-level marine spatial plans, with a view to assessing their degree of alignment with EU environmental legislation and policy objectives. This work has been commissioned by environmental NGOs: Birdlife International and the Irish umbrella NGO Sustainable Water Network (SWAN). In the following, I provide an overview of this work with links to the published reports.

Source: (C) Birdlife International

The work commissioned by Birdlife International includes a comparative indicator-based assessment of the marine spatial plans of Belgium, Germany, Latvia and Sweden. The individual assessment reports for each country and a scientific technical report, providing details of the methodology are available to download here. They were published online in June 2022. The work was supported by Michaela Loch (research assistant) and was carried out in collaboration with the Birdlife International’s staff marine policy team in Brussels as well as Dr Aline Kühl-Stenzel of NABU in Germany. Key results of the comparative assessment include the following:

  1. There is considerable variation in the degree to which an effective ecosystem-based approach to MSP is currently implemented. This may in part relate to the quality of data available across relevant ecosystem indicators.
  2. In most, if not all, cases of national-level MSP, the conservation and restoration of marine ecosystems is treated as a sectoral interest alongside other sectoral interests, rather than determining the boundaries within which those sectoral activities must take place.
  3. There is an evident need for closer alignment between national-level MSP, implementation of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), and Marine Protected Area (MPA) designation and management, to meet EU policy targets, including those in the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.
  4. A quantitative and spatially explicit assessment of cumulative impacts must be a core component of the environmental assessment of any MSP process. Only one of the plans evaluated includes such an assessment.
  5. Assessments of cumulative impacts must include cross-sectoral synergetic impacts and take explicit account of the volume and intensity of planned/projected activities over the period of the plan. The cumulative impact assessments of the plans evaluated fail to match these criteria.
  6. Maritime spatial plans must be prepared on the basis of systemic, quantitative assessments of both ecological carrying capacity and ecosystem sensitivity. The plans evaluated do not take sufficient account of ecological limits and ecosystem sensitivity.
  7. Maritime spatial plans must balance the exploitation and protection of marine resources, not least by safeguarding the Natura 2000 network. The plans evaluated here will drastically increase cumulative pressures on the marine environment not only outside, but also inside, Natura 2,000 sites.

The evaluation report commissioned by SWAN and published in May 2022, examines the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), published by the Irish Government in 2021. The report finds that the NMPF is in fact a policy framework rather than a spatial plan. The NMPF fails to identify where activities will take place at sea or set out regionally differentiated priorities for the use and protection of Ireland’s marine space, nor does it provide an indication of the volume and intensity of actual, planned or projected human activities at sea. It fails to provide an assessment or mapping of the sensitivity of marine ecosystems to human impacts. This precludes any assessment of cumulative impact or carrying capacity. It is thus not possible to assess whether and to what extent human impacts on the marine environment will lead to a deterioration or improvement of the environmental status. It is concluded that the NMPF provides limited guidance on the direction and priorities of Irish marine policy and fails to formulate a clear vision of the public interest in the use of sea space. Consequently, there is a serious risk that a private sector development-led rather than plan-led approach will take hold, characterised by a lack of spatial coordination, inefficiency in infrastructure provision and insufficient regard for the imperative to protect and restore marine and coastal ecosystems. 

The evaluation report identifies critical deficits but also provides examples of international good practice and makes a series of recommendations for the future development of MSP in Ireland.

Both traditional (e.g. fishing, shipping, mineral extraction) and emerging uses (offshore wind, aquaculture) are putting increased pressure on marine ecosystems. It is vital that marine spatial planning follows an effective ecosystem-based approach to ensure further deterioration of Europe’s marine environment is avoided. This will require transboundary learning, cooperation and creative, international solutions. It is hoped that these assessments and others (e.g. WWF) will inform future policy developments and implementation of ecosystem-based MSP.

Results of the assessments were / will be presented at the following events:

May 15th: ICLRD webinar: Where Land Meets Sea: Planning Challenges and Opportunities at the Coast (online)

June 2nd:  NABU Fachgespräch: Eine Strategie für Nord-und Ostsee-Natur-und Klimaschutz in der marinen Raumordnung, Berlin (with participation of DG MARE and members of the German Bundestag).

June 8th: Birdlife International webinar: Maritime Spatial Plans: Will EU countries protect and restore nature at sea? Video recording available here. (with participation from Felix Leinemann, DG MARE)

August 31st: Bundesamt für Naturschutz:  Gesprächskreis Meeresnaturschutz: online conference.

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