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IOC-UNESCO step-by-step guide to MSP


The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO developed a ten-step guide defining the scope and the nature of marine spatial planning. MSP can be a key component to an ecosystem-based management of marine areas and marine resources. The publication provides guidance on the tasks and steps required to make MSP operational and bring an initiative to successful results. Real world examples complement the step-by-step guidance to setting up MSP, discussing lessons learnt and good practices in MSP around the world.


Application in MSP:
Type of Issue:
Type of practice:
Stage of MSP cycle:
Cross-border / trans-national aspect:
Coherence with other processes:
Key words:

Questions this practice may help answer

  • What is marine spatial planning?
  • Why do we need marine spatial planning?
  • Why is space and time important?
  • How can marine spatial planning affect ecosystem goods and services?
  • What are the benefits of marine spatial planning?
  • What are the outputs of marine spatial planning?
  • How does MSP relate to other planning approaches?

Implementation Context

At the beginning of the early 2000s, marine/maritime spatial planning (MSP) has become a topic of considerable interest around the globe. Especially regions and marine areas with high levels of activity have started to explore MSP and implement plans. In response to this surge of interest in MSP, IOC-UNESCO issued the 2009 publication “Step-by-Step Approach for Marine Spatial Planning toward Ecosystem-based Management”.  This guide is a joint initiative of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the MAB Programme (the Man and the Biosphere) coordinated by the Ecological and Earth Sciences Division).

Aspects / Objectives

While at the time of the publication of this guide, many attempts have already been made to define the nature and scope of MSP, comparatively few of them discuss how to put it into practice. Thus, this publication has aimed at  providing guidance on how to make marine spatial planning operational.

The guide’s primary target group are the authorities in charge of managing marine areas and their resources and of implementing MSP. As the majority of these professionals managing marine areas come from technical or scientific backgrounds (domains such as oceanography, ecology, biology, engineering), only a minority are professional planners or managers. Hence, these professionals tend to adopt a “learning-by-doing approach", which can be effective, yet often expensive, method.


The guide proposes a step-by-step approach to show how marine spatial planning can be set up and used to achieve an ecosystem-based management. This approach helps professionals working on MSP to understand the different tasks, skills and expertise required to formulate and manage MSP efforts. Furthermore, the publication gives tips on how to look for financing, engaging stakeholders, monitoring and evaluating MSP processes and outcomes. comprehension 

The approach has been developed by analysing various MSP initiatives around the globe. Ten case studies analyse and document examples of MSP initiatives in different stages of implementation. The guide examines what has worked and what not when developing and implementing MSP in different contexts globally. 

The publication is a good starting point for professionals who wish to learn more about MSP. For more detailed information, the publication gives references throughout the text to additional helpful sources, such as the UNESCO’s website dedicated to MSP (

Main Outputs / Results

The ten steps that can be followed to formulate and implement a marine spatial plan are the following:

  1. Identifying need and establishing authority
  2. Obtaining financial support
  3. Organizing the process through pre-planning
  4. Organizing stakeholder participation
  5. Defining and analysing existing conditions
  6. Defining and analysing future conditions
  7. Preparing and approving the spatial management plan
  8. Implementing and enforcing the spatial management plan
  9. Monitoring and evaluating performance
  10. Adapting the marine spatial management process


Both the approach and the good practices presented in this publication are meant to provide guidance to MSP efforts around the world. While specificities of the respective local/regional/national context need to be taken into account, the recommendations provide a useful starting point for any MSP effort. Nonetheless, it is useful to keep in mind that MSP is quickly evolving field, with an increased interest and a swelling number of initiatives resulting in numerous new publications since 2009. 

Responsible Entity 

Marine Policy and Regional Coordination Section

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO (msp-ioc[at]unesco[dot]org)

Contact person

Authors: Charles Ehler and Fanny Douvere
Editor: Rachel Dahl