With about 70% of the Earth represented by oceans, we can expect more resource exploration and extraction from them in coming years as demand for food, metals, transport, recreation, and other areas increase. However, the oceans are also sensitive to a variety of harmful environmental impacts, ranging from climate change to pollution. To help guide the use of our oceans to make them sustainable but provide basic resources, the marine spatial planning (MSP) index has been created to help guide sustainable use of the oceans.
Six key principles to managing ocean space
There are six key principles that should be considered when planning the use of ocean space. These are listed as areas that adhere to taking an environmentally-beneficial approach. This includes planning being ecosystem-based (i.e., prioritize environmental needs), integrated, have place-based policies, including local considerations, use should be adaptive that is sensitive to change, apply strategic use for social benefit, and it should be participatory among stakeholders.
The idea is that these principles provide ecological, economic, and social objectives in reaching a healthy so-called blue economy in the use of ocean space. The objectives should help reduce conflict, increase investment, enable cooperation, and protect the environment. All of these form MSP and this has been adopted by the European Union and international organizations as a way to guide member states in their use of ocean resources.
Assessing the effectiveness of marine spatial planning
However, the application of MSP has been uneven and often some of the objectives are sacrificed to achieve other goals, such as economic interests. In part, many actors using ocean resources are fixed on more immediate goals or do not consider the wider process of ocean use but are fixed on end goals (e.g., resource extraction). To help guide planning and ocean use, an index is needed that can score ocean space users so that they can be evaluated for their application of the six key principles.
Researchers from the Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador developed 36 total features listed as part of MSP that stakeholders should adhere to using the so-called MSP index. The idea is that features need to represent the six key criteria while making it easier to evaluate how organizations are adhering to the goals of MSP. To help better implement MSP, researchers first developed a process that filtered from 193 criteria to one that uses 36, or 6 per principle. That way it is not too difficult to evaluate actors.
In the index, scores can range between 0-3, with scores rated as absent, minimal, good, and excellent respectively. Six international cases were trialed to see if the MSP index could capture the adherence to the six key principles. In the research evaluation, content had to be in English, it had to be in final draft or approval phase, and information had to be public to be evaluated. From this, scores ranged between 44-84 out of 108 total points for all the features scored.
Areas such as stakeholder empowerment and participation scored as absent in half of cases studied. Plans in many cases lacked adaptive approaches to use of resources or space, where many uses of the ocean often focused only on the immediate objective (e.g., resource extraction). Placed-based principles, that adhere to the use of a space at a given point and local needs, scored the highest, but many plans lacked long-term planning and were not adaptive.
Overall, all actors need to more carefully consider their longer-term goals in ensuring that the six key criteria for sustainable and ecologically-friendly uses of ocean space are best served. Although this is a limited set of examples, it highlights deficiencies in how larger organizations have exploited ocean spaces. The benefit is the MSP index can now serve as a relatively quick way to see if key stakeholder interests have been considered before any project to use ocean space is enabled.
Case study of ocean usage in Crete
In another evaluation of MSP, in a case study looking at Crete, it is clear that there are many applications of marine resources that are in conflict. In particular, commercial interests, such as shipping, transport, and fishing, may not enable sustainable use of given spaces, even if a given region has clear protection. Northern Crete, which has a higher population concentration, is shown to have many regions in clear conflict in the use of MSP, while southern Crete is better mainly due to the topography and limited population.
Marine resources used often overlap and encroach on areas that are protected. By scoring and using the MSP index, one can also potentially rate where areas can be improved and what actions would need to take place for the overall MSP score to improve. This also then provides a very public way for authorities to be accountable in improving overall scores to see if international obligations are being adhered to.
Protecting the world’s oceans
As ocean spaces increasingly are exploited, planning for sustainable and ecologically-friendly uses of them becomes more critical. There are criteria, such as MSP, created and applied by international bodies and states, but ways on implementing or evaluating MSP are lacking. The MSP index provides a pathway for stakeholders to better plan future use of ocean space. As of now, most users lack clear long-term planning and clear conflict in the use of space is evident, preventing sustainability in areas where ocean space is used.
By forcing ocean users to demonstrate high MSP index scores, the public could be better served through ocean resources being used in ways that benefit a wider range of stakeholders. Planning itself could be more transparent and envision beneficial usage of ocean resources that does not strain their viability for future generations.
 For more on MSP and its key goals, see: https://oceans-and-fisheries.ec.europa.eu/ocean/blue-economy/maritime-spatial-planning_en.
 For more on how ocean space can be evaluated by using the MSP index, see: Reimer, J.M., Devillers, R., Zuercher, R. et al. The Marine Spatial Planning Index: a tool to guide and assess marine spatial planning. npj Ocean Sustainability, 2, 15 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44183-023-00022-w.
 For more on the Crete example and how conflict in the use of marine spaces occurs, see: Rempis, N and Georgios Tsilimigkas. Marine Spatial Planning on Crete Island, Greece: Methodological and Implementation Issues. Journal of Spatial Science, 68, 2 (2023): 205–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/14498596.2021.1955025.