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Remote sensing for Marine Spatial Planning and Integrated Coastal Areas management: Achievements, challenges, opportunities and future prospects


This practice refers to the contents of a paper published in 2016 in Remote Sensing Application: Society and Environment. The paper addresses the past and current uses of Remote Sensing (RS) technologies that are supporting Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and Integrated Coastal Area Management (ICAM). The characteristics of RS systems of interest for studying the oceans and coastal ecosystems are introduced in the paper. Secondly, a conceptual framework is defined which relates all important components of ICAM/MSP: 1) Ecosystem health and pollution, 2) Natural (coastal) hazards, 3) Marine Space and Use, 4) Coastal land cover and use, 5) population (dynamics), with their respective data collection goals and the most appropriate state-of-the-art RS sensor technologies to study them, summed up in a comprehensive table. A summary of achievements of remote sensing in each component of ICAM and MSP is given, with a particular interest for developing countries where their implementation is made difficult by several technical and governance issues. Opportunities are also presented to nuance those challenges in the form of programs and initiatives to increase capacity and resources to exploit RS in a MSP/ICAM context. Finally, future satellite missions of particular interest for ICAM and MSP are introduced. 

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 role can remote sensing technologies play for ICAM and MSP?
  • What are the available remote sensing technologies that can support data acquisition for MSP and ICAM?
  • What are the weakness, opportunities and challenges of available remote sensing technologies in MSP and ICAM?
  • What remote sensing technologies are more suitable for studying specific aspects of human uses and environmental components relevant for MSP?
  • What are the most relevant future satellite missions and sensors as far as MSP and ICAM are concerned?

Implementation Context

This practice mainly focuses on the potential application of remote sensing technologies to obtain reliable spatial data to support analysis and monitoring processes in the context of MSP and ICAM.

Aspects / Objectives

Main objectives of the paper are

  • An overview of RS key role to play in ICAM and MSP, demonstrated through a conceptual framework showing how RS is currently being used to study oceans and coastal areas in the frame of ICAM and MSP, sometimes in an operational and routine manner.
  • A summary of achievements from the public and private sectors in operational uses of RS in ICAM and MSP practices; also the current state of research in this domain is presented according to relevant themes.
  • The identification of potential areas of improvement on ways to best integrate remote sensing practices to the coastal and marine management ‘toolbox’. The practical limitations of data accessibility and the mechanisms in place for an effective integration of RS to ICAM and MSP in developing countries, and specifically in Africa where practitioners face many technical difficulties, are also addressed.
  • An overview of new earth observation satellite missions developed by the space industry, particularly relevant to studying the coasts and oceans.

Overall, the purpose of this paper is to clearly delineate the role RS has to play in ICAM and MSP in terms of data requirement and availability, and to consider how, and to what extent, this has been achieved so far, and what the future holds for the operational use of RS to support knowledge-based policy-making for the sustainable management of the coastal and marine environment.


This paper was based upon research about the achievements of the public and private sectors in operational uses of RS in ICAM and MSP practices, the current state of progress in this domain and an overview of the future satellite missions, particularly those relevant to studying the coasts and oceans in the context of MSP and ICAM. To meet its main objectives, the paper addresses these specific topics:

  • The role of remote sensing for ICAM and MSP.
  • The development of a conceptual diagram of remote sensing for ICAM and MSP, linking some specific topics (ecosystem health and pollution, natural (coastal) hazards, marine space and use, coastal land use, population, monitoring, prevention/mitigation, assessment) with their respective data collection goals and the most appropriate state-of-the-art RS sensor technologies to study them.
  • Achievements in remote sensing for ICAM and MSP in relation to the specific topics of ecosystem health and pollution, coastal land cover and use, natural hazards, marine space and use, population.
  • Challenges and opportunities of RS use in the context of ICAM and MSP in terms of continuity, reliability, resolution and coverage, knowledge gap, institutional barriers.
  • Future satellite missions relevant for ICAM and MSP

Main Outputs / Results

The main results of this study were:

  • A diagram providing an overview of the conceptual framework behind this study that portrays the different concepts and components of RS as a tool to support ICAM and MSP. It offers a “bird's eye” view of the RS techniques which can be applied to ICAM and MSP, given the specific data collection goals (monitoring, prevention-mitigation, assessment) requirements of each ICAM/MSP environmental and socio-economic component (e.g. coral reefs, population density).
  • An overview of existing RS technologies (sensor satellite/platform) their characteristics (spectral range, spatial resolution, starting date of operation, spatial coverage, temporal continuity, etc.) and their possible marine and coastal application. All the satellites listed were in operation at time of writing.
  • The identification and description of RS facilities with  relevance to MSP practitioners that will become available in the near future:
    • Sentinel-3A (ocean colour & altimetry mission)
    • Geostationary Ocean Colour (METEOSAT FCI)
    • Space-borne hyperspectral missions (HyspIRI, ENMap, PACE)
    • Landsat-9 and synergies with Sentinel-2
  • The main challenges and opportunities for the future development of RS technologies within the framework of MSP and ICAM, including those related to:
    • Continuity issues due to the interruption of observations;
    • Data reliability which can be limited by calibration/validation errors (e.g. wrong cloud masking and atmospheric correction) of satellite data for a specific study area;
    • Resolution and coverage needs for an effective collection of observational data in coastal-marine areas;
    • Knowledge gaps on remote sensing potential, including those about integration of satellite data from different sources and inter-operability of different remote sensing technologies;
    • Improvement of science-policy linkages to raise awareness on the potential cost-effectiveness and reliability of RS technologies.

Conceptual diagram. The ICAM/MSP components (rectangles) have remote sensing observation requirements, represented by the data collection goals (purple diamonds), and each data collection goal can be achieved through the use remote sensing techniques


The RS technologies and possible applications identified through this paper might be relevant for any MSP practice and exercise within the European context. As research material, the present work can be referenced and included in future studies and research outputs.

Contact Person

William Ouellette

Marine Policy and Regional Coordination Section

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO

E-mail: (William[dot]ouellette[at]gmail[dot]com)


Wondifraw Getinet

Marine Policy and Regional Coordination Section

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO

E-Mail: (W[dot]getinet[at]gmail[dot]com)