MSP Data and Assessment Tools

Main issues

Member States across all European sea basins are encountering similar issues with respect to MSP data needs. These issues stem from the differences in the scope of activities, maritime uses, sea basins and the type of planning that is being carried out in the specific Member States. Common data gaps include socio-economic data for different uses and socio-cultural information. By and large, data and information gaps are less about missing data than about how to aggregate and interpret data in order to acquire the information needed by a planner. Challenges for Member States lie in developing second generation maritime spatial plans, which often require more analytical information and strategic evidence. Underlying this is the need for spatial evaluation tools for assessment, impact and conflict analysis purposes.

Additionally, transnational MSP data needs are different than national MSP data needs. While the scope and level of detail of data needed is typically much simpler at international level, ensuring its coherence and harmonisation across borders remains a challenge. Pan-European initiatives, such as the EMODnet data portal and sea basin checkpoints have the potential to support transboundary MSP data exchange needs by providing access to a range of harmonised data sets across European Sea Basins and testing the availability and adequacy of existing data sets to meet commercial and policy challenges.

The MSP Data Study (2017), conducted by the EU MSP Platform for the European Commission, presents an overview of the data and knowledge needed by Member States to make MSP decisions, taking into account variations in planning scales and the differing points in the MSP cycle. The study examines current and future MSP data and knowledge issues from various perspectives (i.e. from the perspectives of Member States, sea basin(s) as well as projects and other relevant initiatives) in order to identify:

•  What data is available for MSP purposes and what data is actually used for MSP;

•  Commonalities in MSP projects and Member State experiences;

•  The potential for EMODnet sea basin portals to help coordination of MSP at a regional level and options for realising marine spatial data infrastructures to implement MSP;

•  Potential revisions to be made concerning INSPIRE specifications for MSP purposes.

The full study can be downloaded here.

Please note that this section of the EU MSP Platform website is not currently being updated with new information. However, the resources throughout our website remain relevant to our mission of sharing knowledge and experiences on MSP in the EU.

Frequently Asked Questions

MSP information and data needs strongly depend on the type of planning that is being carried out in a particular maritime jurisdiction. However, results based on the MSP Data Study show that the data categories currently used by MSP planners are essentially similar across countries.A general list of types and categories of data and information commonly used in MSP processes have been indicated in Table 1. The table also shows how these MSP data themes and categories relate to INSPIRE spatial themes (column 3). This is not to say that MSP planners have no need for additional data sets, but rather that these may be either unknown or inaccessible to MSP planners, or in fact non-existent due to ‘knowledge gaps’. 

Four broad categories have been identified:

1. Administrative boundaries,
2. Description of the geophysical environment and biological/ecological features,
3. Data relating to the relevant human activities and sectors,
4. Socio-economic and policy-related data.

Least variation is noted with respect to the first two categories, i.e. the description of the geophysical environment and biological/ecological features in the planning areas and boundaries (basic geographical and administrative boundaries, such as the limits of the EEZ, country and county boundaries or depth contours).

Physical and biological data are often related to the MSFD categories and, in some cases, are drawn directly from MSFD assessments. Such data is largely descriptive and serves to characterise the planning area and its major features. Where there are direct links to MSFD assessment, the descriptive data categories also include human pressures and occasionally the sources of such pressures (e.g. marine litter, marine underwater noise, point sources of pollution). Linking MSFD and MSP efforts in this manner seems an effective way of ensuring MSP is based on sound environmental evidence; in turn, it is a way of ensuring that MSP is able to contribute to achieving the objectives of the MSFD.

The third category, data relating to human activities and sectors, is more varied. The main sectors are once again similar and differences are mostly found in the weight given to each sector in terms of the diversity of data categories specified and the expression of the sector (e.g. whether offshore energy refers to offshore wind farming, wave energy, CCS, oil and gas, etc.). The most significant differences are found in the fourth category (socio-economic and policy-related data) and whether this is included in the plan/data portal. There is evidence that older plans are less likely to include this type of information (e.g. the German plan for the EEZ) but all of the more recent drafts or plans make some reference to it. It is therefore likely that this data category will become more important in the future.

Data, information, evidence and knowledge are closely related concepts but each has their own role in relation to the other. Knowledge is the logical interpretation of evidence from data and information. Evidence needs are therefore likely to be influenced by:

• The strategic level of the plan, taking its timeframe into account (e.g. requiring evidence on future trends, long-term perspectives, scenarios and projections),

• The level of integration pursued by the plan (e.g. requiring more complex evidence, such as evidence of cumulative impacts of sea use),

• The degree of participation and, linked to this, the types of knowledge included in decision-making (influencing the kind of evidence that is admitted to the decision-making process – e.g. scientific vs. non-scientific evidence),

• The need to be able to justify planning decisions (e.g. if the plan is challenged in court),

• Transboundary dimension of the plan, if relevant,

• Monitoring and evaluation of the planning area and the plan itself.

Most Member States apply a similar approach to stocktaking of current uses and describing the status quo, although they employ slightly different data sets and descriptions of categories in accordance with their needs. However, there is a predominance of descriptive data, which describes the marine environment, and less analytical information, which is where the challenge lies in developing more detailed second generation plans. These tend to be more ambitious in scope and focus on a broader range of evidence. Some data gaps do exist, and commonly, these are found under the categories of socioeconomic data for different uses/activities, commercial fisheries data and socio-cultural information. While the concept of ecosystem services has advanced over the last decade and theoretical approaches have been developed to quantify their value, applying these practically in an ecosystem based approach remains a struggle for planners. Further discussion on socio-economic information can be found in the FAQ on that topic (forthcoming).

Common challenges with respect to data gaps, data policy and transboundary data exchange found at the European, sea basin and regional scales include:

• Availability of suitable data sets in a consistent manner (i.e. compatible formats) across sea basins and regions, coherence across boundaries.

• No statistical unit (i.e. NUTS equivalent) for sea space.

• Difficulty in disaggregating information between land and sea

• Limited availability of data or information on land-sea interactions, e.g. degree to which coastal communities are dependent on their links to adjacent seas and the potential for them to benefit from growing maritime  

• Limited access to social, economic and governance data, although this is improving.

• Gaps and weaknesses in historical time series, and ensuring data quality.

Overall, with respect to data and information gaps, the challenge for MSP authorities is not so much about what data but more how to aggregate and interpret the data in order to acquire the information needed by the planner. Further insight into specific data and information gaps are likely to be identified as part of the EMODnet Sea-basin Checkpoints where the availability and adequacy of marine data to meet different commercial and policy challenges is being evaluated.

Further detail is provided in the table on information gaps from the MSP Data Study:.


A systematic analysis of data infrastructures across European sea basins was carried out as part of the Data Study  to identify the scope and potential relevance of existing data infrastructures to MSP processes. The focus was on European and national level systems which are operational (i.e. regularly updated and maintained). Themes and sub-themes adopted from the MMO Evidence Strategy 2015 – 2020 were used to establish the scope of the data infrastructure with respect to providing relevant data for MSP purposes. A total of 60 data infrastructures potentially addressing one or more of the above MSP process themes were identified. Among these, a broad coverage of different types of data infrastructures across the different sea basins was found, with data portals being at the forefront, followed by GIS mapping tools and information services. The following table presents the findings from the MSP Data Study on Data Infrastructures:


The following are information services, data catalogues and data portals which provide data that describe marine areas that may be useful for MSP Planners (not MSP-explicit):

European-wide Data Infrastructures:
Atlantic Sea Basin
Baltic Sea Basin
North Sea Basin
Mediterranean Sea Basin

Data portals that have been developed to support an MSP process or project can be found at the bottom of this page with a short description, under the tab "Data Portals for MSP."

In various completed MSP projects, assessment/decision support tools were used to support the interpretation of information and building of evidence for MSP. However, only in some instances were assessment/decision support tools actually developed and/or applied throughout the course of a project. 

According to Sprague & Carlson (1), decision support tools or Decision Support Systems (DSS) are defined as interactive computer-based systems designed to help decision makers use data and models to solve unstructured problems. Decision support tools are commonly separated into 4 distinct classes according to their focus as follows:

  • Model driven DSS –are often more complex systems using mathematical, statistical or simulation models to generate results.
  • Data driven DSS –do not require a computer model rather allow users to use data to provide specific answers to specific questions for example by selecting options within a database in order to generate a result.
  • Communications driven DSS –facilitate communication between different stakeholders to assist in providing different outcomes. An example of this could be online collaboration systems.
  • Knowledge driven DSS –(also known as expert DSS) use a series of stored rules and facts in order to generate results. These systems are designed to produce results, which mimic the way experts reach decisions.

Below is a list of examples of different decision support tools that are available:

MARXAN site selection tool in MSP

Developed by the University of Queensland Marxan is a model driven decision support tools which is most commonly be used in the selection of site for nature protection. It is reported to be the most widely used decision support software used for conservation planning globally and used in 184 countries globally ( As part of the BaltSeaPlan and BALTSPACE projects, the Marxan software tool was tested in MSP for site selection of i.e. offshore wind power and/or fishery areas. Further resources on how to use Marxan are available from PacMARA. 

DISPLACE Model for spatial fishery planning and effort displacement

The DISPLACE project developed a model based platform primarily for research purposes aimed to transform the fishermen’s detailed knowledge into models, evaluation tools. The software also has the facility to incorporate other utilization of the sea including but not limited to energy production, transport and recreational uses.

DeCyDe for Sustainability Policy tool

The DeCyDe for Sustainability tool is a data-driven, spread sheet based set of indicators and decision support tool that allows coastal communities and authorities to self-assess their progress towards sustainability goals.

FisherMap - Mapping the Grounds: recording fishermen’s use of the seas

FisherMap is an example of a communication driven decision support tool, which aimed to map the nature and extent of fishing activities and fishermen’s knowledge of marine ecosystems. The tool developed by Finding Sanctuary a regional development partnership aimed to assist them in developing a network of Marine Protected Areas around the coasts and seas of South West England. A series of interviews were conducted with individual fishermen who also highlighted they areas they used on maps along with providing information of the types of equipment used, species targeted and other relevant information. The results were fed into a GIS database and maps digitised. The information was used to create summary maps, which were made publicly available. 

Recent reviews have been conducted regarding the use of decision support tools in MSP, including recommendations for future application (2) (3) (4). Descriptions of additional decision support/assessment tools which are or could be used in an MSP process are available under the tab "Decision Support / Assessment Tools" below, and a list of those that have been used in MSP projects can also be found in Table 3 from the MSP Data Study.

[1] Sprague, R. H. & E. D. Carlson. Building Effective Decision Support Systems. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982.

[2] Vanessa Stelzenmüller, Janette Lee, Andy South, Jo Foden, Stuart I. Rogers. Practical tools to support marine spatial planning: A review and some prototype tools, Marine Policy, Volume 38, March 2013, Pages 214-227

[3] K. Pınarbaşı, I. Galparsoro, Á. Borja, V. Stelzenmüller, C.N. Ehler, A. Gimpel. Decision support tools in marine spatial planning: present applications, gaps and future perspectives. Mar. Pol., 83 (2017), pp. 83-91

(4) Janßen, H. Göke, C., Luttmann, A. Knowledge integration in Marine Spatial Planning: A practitioners' view on decision support tools with special focus on Marxan. Ocean & Coastal Management, Vol. 168 (2019), pp. 130-138

Cartographic standards for MSP are a national issue, often determined based on specific national planning ordinances. Therefore, common and agreed standards for representing uses / sectors / activities on maps in national MSP plans do not yet exist across EU Member States. As a result, uses and their respective spatial areas are often symbolised in diverse formats. 

However, there have been some attempts at the sea-basin level to develop common cartographic standards for depicting maritime uses and activities as a result of voluntary, transnational cooperations. For example, the Adriatic Atlas to support ICZM and MSP was one the outputs of the Shape project in the Adriatic Sea region. 

Additionally, the INSPIRE Directive relates to data on spatial aspects of maritimes uses and activities. The relationship between the INSPIRE Directive and MSP data is discussed in the recently published MSP Data Study, specifically in the section "MSP data themes and the INSPIRE Directive.“ 

BASEMAPS – HELCOM transboundary MSP portal

The Baltic LINes project (2016-2019) aimed to increase transnational coherence of shipping routes and energy corridors in Maritime Spatial Plans (MSP). In order to achieve this, up-to-date georeferenced transnational data from its original sources was needed. In cooperation with Aalborg University, HELCOM is leading the development of the first Marine Spatial Data Infrastructure (MSDI) prototype in the Baltic Sea. 

Tools4MSP Geoplatform

The Tools4MSP Geoplatform (former ADRIPLAN Portal) is a community-based, open source portal based on GeoNode, a web-based Content Management System (CMS) for developing geospatial information systems (GIS) and for deploying spatial data infrastructure (SDI).

Baltic Sea Data and Map Services

The HELCOM Data and Map service is a Baltic Sea oriented online mapping tool combining spatial data from different HELCOM thematic map portals.

Adriatic Atlas to support ICZM and MSP

The "Adriatic Atlas to support ICZM and MSP" is the first Web Atlas for the Adriatic Sea that was developed, within the Shape project, through a cross-border approach. The Adriatic Atlas is designed as a tool for storing, visualizing and managing data which are necessary for the implementation of MSP and ICZM policies in the Adriatic basin and through a cross-border cooperation approach.

MISIS Black Sea, Marine Atlas

MISIS Black Sea Marine Atlas is a GIS application that provides user-friendly information to decision-makers on to the open public and facilitates the monitoring of Black Sea waters.

On line tool providing access to the marine planning evidence base

The Marine Planning Evidence Base presents information on all sectors and activities submitted to support the development of marine plans, including environmental, economic and social data.

Finnish Inventory Programme for the Underwater Marine Environment

The programme's (VELMU) objective is to survey marine habitats in Finnish waters, give an overview of species occurrence and develop a management system for data collected on the benthic marine environment. The programme collects data on the diversity of underwater marine biotopes and species.

Pegaso Spatial Data Infrastructure

PEGASO Spatial data Infrastructure (SDI) is a distributed data sharing infrastructure made up of GeoNodes composed of three main components: a Map Viewer, a Data Catalogue and a Map Atlas. Thanks to the SDI metadata, services and datasets related to PEGASO project are shared and can be used by end users in a standardized, harmonized and interoperable way. 

Marine management atlas

A spatial analysis tool that can be used to produce maps that are ideally suited to the needs of each user.

Web-GIS platform for implementing MSP in Greece and Cyprus

Besides mapping most relevant maritime uses, the web-GIS services were used to visualise conflicting interactions (considering both maritime and land-based activities and uses) and derive density activity maps and/or conflicts maps.

SNIMar Geoportal: A tool for integrated geographic information for marine and coastal water management

The SNIMar Geoportal aids the decision-making of community environmental policies and other policies or activities which may have an impact on the environment in Portugal.


The German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) has developed a geodata infrastructure  called GeoSeaPortal to accommodate the increasing demand for marine information and geodata. The central component is a geo-object-relational database, in which data from different information and data systems are harmonized and provided for internal as well as external users.

Ireland’s Digital Ocean

The Integrated Digital Ocean is a platform to access a diverse range of services including online maps, data dashboards, data access, data search and publications. 

Med-Biodiversity Community Platform

The Platform includes access to data on certain themes relevant to the Med Biodiversity Community.

Adriplan Cumulative impact tool

The Cumulative Impact is the main methodological tool used in ADRIPLAN to evaluate the potential impact of maritime activities on the environment, quantifying the pressures generated by the uses on the environmental components (in the current and future scenarios). Cumulative impacts are a key point for the construction of maritime spatial plans using an Ecosystem Based Approach (EBA). The analysis of cumulative impacts aims at identifying areas in the sea where the environmental and ecological components are more exposed to anthropogenic pressures that negatively affect them.

Confidence Assessment Tools

The MESH project aimed to promote harmonised production and use of marine habitat maps covering the North West European seas by adapting and enhancing previous achievements in this area. It involved the collation of habitat mapping information across several countries, including UK, Ireland, Netherlands and Belgium. The Confidence Assessment Tools were created by the MESH Project help to assess the suitability of maps to their intended purpose.

Applying Marxan for offshore wind power in the western Baltic Sea

The study uses Marxan, (a decision support tool for mostly used in conservation planning) to optimize algorithms to find the most cost-efficient site selection suitable for offshore wind farm installations in Germany, Sweden, Poland and Denmark.

BaltSeaPlan Web Application / BoundaryGIS

The web application for MSP developed in the framework of the BaltSeaPlan project and based on Boundary-GIS Geoportal is a supporting tool which should facilitate stakeholder involvement. The application allows any kind of stakeholder to view the current planning status of an area and comment upon them. The user can do so without any specific computer knowledge.

MESH - Survey Scoping Tool

The MESH Project developed an interactive Survey Scoping Tool designed to be used  for each element of a mapping programme (broad, intermediate and fine scale) an will assist in the compilation of a full Scoping Report. 

Identifying conservation priority areas to inform maritime spatial planning

The authors developed and tested an approach to identifying priority areas for conservation that are less impacted by human activities than other areas. The approach combined Marxan and cumulative impact decision support tools to analyse areas for conservation initiatives in marine waters off of mainland Portugal.

Analysis of data, portals, tools and methods supporting MSP processes

This analysis identifies and describes the data, portals, tools and methods available for meeting data and information requirements for MSP in the Eastern Mediterranean. It focuses on existing data, platforms, and infrastructures, and sets out recommendations on how these can be optimized to meet cross-border integration planning challenges in the region.  

Guide on available geo-data for coastal and marine planning

This guide shows which geo-data are available and indicates their characteristics as well as limitations. One finding was that there are more geodata available for marine areas than expected. Mostly these are mapped or modelled seabed and water characteristics, but there are also other kinds of data.

Guide for Cross-Border Spatial Data Analysis in Marine Spatial Planning

This guide is targeted at regional planners and spatial data officers involved in national and cross-border Maritime Spatial Planning. For regional planners, it is intended to help them understand and evaluate maps and other outputs of spatial data analysis. In addition, it seeks to assist GIS specialists in understanding Maritime Spatial Planning and designing goal-oriented, spatial data analysis workflows. 

Data management guidance document

As part of SIMNORAT and SIMWESTMED, data portals were developed for sharing transboundary MSP knowledge for the Western Mediterranean and Northern Atlantic, respectively. The portals were designed to support decision making amongst GIS experts and all stakeholders involved in the MSP process in these sea basins.