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Introduction to MSP

Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) is defined by the UNESCO/IOC  as :

the public process of analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives that are usually specified through a political process.

(Ehler & Douvere 2007, “Visions for a Sea Change”, UNESCO/IOC).

MSP is an integrative process to address the increasing demand for maritime space from traditional and emerging sectors while preserving the proper functioning of marine ecosystems. MSP represents a move from traditional single sector planning to a more integrated approach to the planning of the sea. The key feature of MSP is its functional character i.e., integration of various sectors, societal needs, values and goals. 

MSP can result in plans, permits and other administrative decisions that set the spatial and temporal distribution of relevant existing and future activities and uses in the marine waters, but the outcome of MSP can also take the form of different non-binding visions, strategies, planning concepts, guidelines and governance principles related to the use of sea space.

As listed by the European Commission, key benefits of MSP include:

  • Reduction of conflicts between sectors and creation of synergies between different activities
  • Encouragement of investments by creating predictability, transparency and clearer rules
  • Increased cross-border cooperation between EU countries to develop energy grids, shipping lanes, pipelines, submarine cables and other activities, but also to develop coherent networks of protected areas
  • Protection and preservation of the environment through early identification of impact and opportunities for multiple use of space 

There are also other benefits from MSP, as it puts the seas and oceans on the political agenda and helps to raise stakeholder awareness of important maritime issues. In addition, there are many indirect benefits including those flowing from systematic data and information collection and stakeholder processes. Outside of the European realm, but also in the scientific community, MSP is sometimes referred to as marine spatial planning. Further definitions of concepts relevant to MSP can be found on the Glossary page.

For a brief introduction to MSP, numerous short films are available on MSP (see MSP Library). There are also several visual explanations of MSP, which can be found within the Library, along with an overview of the key documents outlining what MSP is and how the process might be initiated and managed. The MSP library also guides you to some of the key documents which provide an introduction and overview of MSP both within Europe as well as globally.

The EU MSP Platform website contains a wealth of resources relevant to the multitude of specific aspects on how to implement MSP. You can take a look at the User Guidance to see how you can best make use of the resources available on the EU MSP Platform website.

MSP in Europe

MSP Infographic


In Europe, MSP is part of the overarching Integrated Maritime Policy of the EU which has, as its objective, to ‘support the sustainable development of seas and oceans and to develop coordinated, coherent and transparent decision-making in relation to the European Union’s sectoral policies affecting the oceans, seas, islands, coastal and outermost regions and maritime sector..’.

The EU Directive on MSP defines MSP as: 

a process by which the relevant Member State’s authorities analyse and organise human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives.

Directive 2014/89/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for maritime spatial planning

MSP only covers the marine space under Member States juridiction (until the limits of the EEZ or the continental shelf). As described in the MSP Directive, it "shall not affect the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Member States over marine waters which derive from relevant international law, particularly Unclos. In particular, the application of this Directive shall not influence the delineation and delimitation of maritime boundaries by the Member States in accordance with the relevant provisions of Unclos."

UNCLOS Maritime zones

Source: UNCLOS

The MSP Directive was adopted in 2014 and establishes a framework for MSP, ‘aimed at promoting the sustainable growth of maritime economies, the sustainable development of marine areas and the sustainable use of marine resources.’ It obliges the 22 coastal Member States to develop a national maritime spatial plan by 31 March 2021, with a minimum review period of 10 years.

MSP Timeline

Across Europe, Member States are currently at different stages of the MSP process, with plans either in preparation, adopted or under review. For information regarding the status of MSP in the individual countries please see the country pages. The Country Information Profiles available on the European MSP Platform website provide an overview of evolution and status of MSP processes in each of the coastal Member States, and more detailed PDF versions are available for download. 

According to the EU MSP Directive, Member States are free to design and determine the format and content of their maritime spatial plans, including the institutional arrangements and the allocation of maritime activities.

To foster knowledge creation and sharing on how to design and conduct MSPs, many projects have been implemented or are on-going within Europe. Most of these projects are funded via various EU funding programmes and are often of transnational nature by bringing together experience from various partners across Europe or one specific sea-basin and/or region. The ambition is not only to achieve experience sharing and knowledge creation, but also to foster coherence among the various MSP efforts within one sea-basin.

In order to capture the lessons learned both from national and transnational processes and projects, the EU MSP Platform hosts a Projects database and Best practice and scientific publications to share practical experience of MSP across Europe. Moreover, the MSP Studies page presents an overview of studies with strong relevance to MSP.

In order to stay informed of all recent developments in MSP implementation across Europe, please take a look at the News page or Events calendar, subscribe to the EU MSP Platform monthly e-newsletter or follow us on Twitter @EU_MSP_Platform.

Key aspects of MSP

Minimum Requirements

The EU MSP Directive lists several minimum requirements for maritime spatial plans, including reference to aspects such as:

  • land-sea interactions;
  • the ecosystem-based approach;
  • coherence between MSP and other processes such as integrated coastal management;
  • the involvement of stakeholders;
  • the use of best available data;
  • transboundary cooperation between Member States;
  • and cooperation with third countries.

Please take a look at the FAQ page for more information about the key topics for MSP or alternatively search in the MSP practice database by ticking the relevant search filters.

Relevant Sectors

The EU MSP Directive encourages member states to cover under their MSP the following activities and uses:

‘’Through their maritime spatial plans, Member States shall aim to contribute to the sustainable development of energy sectors at sea, of maritime transport, and of the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, and to the preservation, protection and improvement of the environment, including resilience to climate change impacts. In addition, Member States may pursue other objectives such as the promotion of sustainable tourism and the sustainable extraction of raw materials.’’ 

This list is not exhaustive, however, and other sectors might also be considered under MSP in line with the planning experience and legal regime of a given country. The MSP Sectors pages provide you with a good introduction to which aspects might be taken into account for each key sector within an MSP process.

MSP Process Steps

According to the EU MSP Directive, ‘MSP should cover the full cycle of problems and opportunity identification, information collection, planning, decision-making, implementation, revision or updating, and the monitoring of implementation’.

Common approaches to MSP follow a cycle or step-wise approach, such as that proposed in the PlanCoast Handbook on integrated MSP, or the ‘Step-by-step Approach for MSP towards Ecosystem-based Management’ developed by UNESCO. Almost all European countries have developed MSP along a cyclic process and adapted them to their own needs. Where publicly available, these MSP timelines are presented on the Country Information Profiles

Generally, the main steps of any MSP process include: organisation of the process and the involvement of stakeholders, the development of a vision and objectives, a stocktake and analysis of existing conditions, an analysis of future conditions and existing and potential conflicts, the development of solutions, followed by the drafting, implementation, evaluation and adaptation of the plan and the planning process.

The EU MSP Platform

The EU MSP Platform is a service for Member States to share relevant knowledge and experiences, designed to offer support with the implementation of MSP. It is funded by the EC Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE) through the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF). Further information about the EU MSP Platform and its services is available on the About Us page.