A Review of Sustainability Concepts in Marine Spatial Planning and the Potential to Supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14

Frontiers in Marine Science


Ecosystems all over the world are under increasing pressure from human uses. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 (UN SDG 14) seeks to ensure sustainability below water by 2020; however, the ongoing biodiversity loss and habitat deterioration challenge the achievement of this goal. Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is a developing practice with a similar objective to the UN SDG 14, albeit research shows that most MSP cases prioritize economic objectives above environmental objectives. This paper presents an assessment of how MSP can contribute to achieving the UN SDG 14. Results are presented in three steps. First, a representative definition of MSP is presented. Secondly, activities that can be addressed through MSP are laid out. Lastly, results are used to assess how MSP can contribute to the achievement of the UN SDG 14 targets and indicators. This assessment shows great potential for MSP to play a role in the achievement of the UN SDG 14.

September 2021
Application in MSP: 
Applied in an MSP process
Nature protection
Type of Issue: 
Economic aspects
Ecosystem-based approach
Environment aspects
Type of practice: 
Stage of MSP cycle: 
Vision and aims
Cross-border / trans-national aspect: 
Coherence with other processes: 
Habitats and Birds Directive
Marine Strategy Framework Directive
Strategic Environmental Assessment

Questions this practice may help answer:

  • To what extent does MSP support the UN SDG 14?

Implementation Context:

We are currently experiencing the fastest decline in biodiversity ever recorded. In this context, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 "Life Below Water" aims to "Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development". MSP can be a tool to reach this goal, but to what extent?

Aspects / Objectives:

This study explores and clarifies MSP's contribution towards achieving SDG 14 and related targets and decrease the ambiguity regarding the dual role of MSP in supporting both the protection of ecosystems and human development.


The study objectives are attained by conducting an in-depth analysis of key literature on MSP, assessing key MSP definitions, and offering examples for concrete action.

The study is based on a literature review of the most cited documents listed on the Scopus database, addressing three axes:

  • Development of a representative MSP definition
  • Analysis of the main human uses incorporated or managed in MSP initiatives
  • Investigation of MSP's contribution to each of the SDG 14 targets.

Main Outputs / Results:

By combining the terms most used when describing MSP, it can be defined as follows:

“Marine spatial planning is a public, planning process and an element of ecosystem-based sea use management, that aims to prevent conflicts among maritime uses and between human uses and the environment, through a strategic and rational, spatial, and temporal, distribution of activities in order to achieve environmental, social and economic objectives, such as sustaining ecosystem services as well as improving decision-making. The process involves the implementation of environmental protection, facilitating the co-location of compatible uses, and the assessment and management of cumulative impacts.”

The SDG 14 is divided into nine targets:

Target 14.1 - Marine Pollution

MSP could address the amount of fishing gear that is lost/discarded in the seas by setting restriction zones for specific types of gear.  This could then be coordinated with risk and vulnerability analyses related to oil spills due to the shared spatial analysis dimension of the two processes.

MSP determines its limits for integrating Land-Sea-Interactions (nutrients discharge, terrestrial pollution) to reach Target 14.1.

Target 14.2 - Manage and Protect Marine and Coastal Ecosystems

MSP can be used towards  achieving Target 14.2 on Implementing an EBA (Ecosystem Based Approach) in the process by implementing spatial restrictions on high intensity impact activities (fishing, oil & gas, shipping).

Target 14.3 - Minimise and Address Impacts of Ocean Acidification

MSP can provide support in reaching Target 14.3 by allowing space for Marine Renewable Energy production, allocating areas to blue carbon capture and storage, or limiting available space for high-emission activities.

Target 14.4 - Effectively Regulate Harvesting and End Overfishing, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Destructive Fishing Practices

It has been suggested that MSP could provide support in reaching 14.4 with regards to the implementation of non-economic incentives and regulations (setting limits for allowable catches), and can change IUU fishing indirectly (e.g., establishing artificial reefs).

Target 14.5 - Conserve at Least 10% of Coastal and Marine Areas

MSP plays a crucial role in addressing some conservation challenges and improving MPA's Implementation and success. However, it is important to note that MPA's planning needs to be combined with other measures to be successful.

Target 14.6 - Prohibit Certain forms of Fisheries' subsidies

No spatial dimension exists in Target 14.6.

Target 14.7 - Increase the Economic Benefits to Small Island Developing States and Least Developed countries from the Sustainable Use of Marine Resources

Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries are heavily reliant on small scale fisheries and aquaculture. Establishing restrictions in favour of these activities can be a significant lever to facilitate the achievement of Target 14.7.

Target 14.a - Increase Scientific knowledge, develop research capacity and transfer marine technology

MSP requires extensive data on existing habitats, biodiversity, existing and future maritime activities and expected ecological, social and economic change, which can be generated through geo-technologies such as remote sensing and data analysis in geographic information systems. This makes MSP an ideal gateway for meeting the target 14.a.

Target 14.b. Provide Access for Small-Scale Artisanal Fishers to Marine Resources and Markets

Ensuring spatial access for SSAF to marine resources, for example to provide them with exclusivity or priority on ocean use in certain zones. MSP can facilitate access to markets by promoting communication among stakeholders, facilitating new agreements and collaborations between SSAF and market holders.

Target 14.c. Enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS

MSP is recognised a facilitating tool that allows some countries to fulfil their obligations within UNCLOS (United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea).

Conclusion: The practice of MSP can play an important role in ensuring sustainability for life below water and in achieving SDG 14.


Using MSP is one of the levers towards achieving the SDG 14, henceforth, this can be applied in every sea basin and country.

Responsible Entity:

Department of Planning, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark

Costs / Funding Source:

Department of Planning, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark

Contact person:

Trine Skovgaard Kirkfeldt


Department of Planning, Aalborg University, Copenhagen, Denmark.