The Marine Plan
What is marine planning?
Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a way to plan and organise the use, and space, of the sea by people; to balance the demands for development with the need to protect marine ecosystems. Marine planning is focused on improving decision making for future uses of the sea. This can be achieved through setting out what activities already exist, what areas need protection and management, what activities can be placed together to reduce conflict for space and how future activities can be added in the future. Northern Ireland's seas are very busy, with a wide range of people and industries using them. Unlike on land, the seas have not been managed through planning the space and resources available. There has been no planning to consider that we may run out of 'space' or resources. Instead, individual sectors such as fishing, transport, energy, ports are all considered and managed separately, without an overall plan of how best to manage and balance the different uses. There are two big problems with this way of management: firstly the seas can become crowded as more and more activities occur, and conflicts for space and resources happen; secondly the space needed for the health of wildlife and habitats does not get considered when there is no planning. This can lead to damage and degradation of important habitats, and negative impacts on survival of species in our local seas.
Case studies around the world
Many countries around the world are carrying out marine spatial planning. UNESCO provides a global summary on marine spatial planning projects.
In the U.S., the states of Oregon, Washington, Florida and Massachusetts have prepared marine plans. Each of these processes were driven by pressure from new developments in the marine environment (such as renewable energy) and the desire to ensure that environmental health and access to fisheries was not compromised. A recent study on the economic value of MSP found that the Massachusetts Plan had the potential to prevent US$1 million in losses to the whale watching and fishing industry (through minimising conflict with wind farm placement). Furthermore, the wind energy sector had a potential saving of >$10 billion (White et. al. 2012).
Australia has carried out bio-regional marine planning for all of its seas, following on from the sucessful planning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There are six different bio-regions, each with their own plan. At the centre of these marine plans is the identification of conservation goals, key pressures and the priority ecosystems, habitats and species that need protecting through a network of protected areas. This has led to the zonation of the sea, with the designation of some highly protected MPAs as well as 'multi-use' areas, which lists activities which are permitted. The bio-regional plans provide a framwork for region-specific decisions about human activities.
Germany has also prepared marine plans for the Baltic Sea region and the North Sea in response to an influx of renewable energy project. The plans designate areas of the sea for commercial use, scientific use, maritime navigation, and protection of the marine environment. A map of the North Sea Plan can be found here.
What is Northern Ireland doing
Northern Ireland is currently preparing to release the first draft of the Marine Plan for Public Consultation in early 2016. The NIMTF will be considering the proposals to ensure that the future development of Northern Irelands seas follows the environmentally sensitive 'Ecosystem Based Approach' and promotes a stable, sustainable and biologically diverse future for our local seas.
The case studies outlined above all included the network of MPAs into the framework of the plan. It is important that Northern Ireland follows these examples to establish what natural resources we have to both sustainably use and to protect, as well as an assessment of regional pressures and priorities to aid future decisions about managing our seas.