How can maritime spatial planning help enhance biodiversity mainstreaming? 

Volcy Boilevin, Ph.D. candidate, Nantes Université 
Päivi Haapasaari, Senior Research Scientist, Finnish Environment Agency, Syke
Riku Varjopuro, Senior Research Scientist, Finnish Environment Agency, Syke

Mainstreaming biodiversity into the policies and practices of relevant economic sectors is critical for reversing biodiversity loss. Yet, this is a complex task, as shown in our previous blog.  

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 recognizes maritime spatial planning (MSP) as an important tool for reducing the adverse impacts of human activities on sensitive species and habitats. The role of MSP in the protection of marine ecosystems is also written, inter alia, in the EU’s fisheries, offshore energy, and shipping policies.  

This time we review the potential benefits and challenges of using MSP for enhancing biodiversity conservation and promoting policy coherence. The text is based on research conducted in the MSP4BIO project. 

MSP has potential in biodiversity mainstreaming 

MSP coordinates the use of the ocean among various maritime activities including area-based conservation measures. It provides a framework for reducing conflicts and fostering synergies between societal ambitions that are often expressed through sectoral policies. Moreover, it can play an important role in supporting the pursuit of good environmental status of the seas.  

MSP can communicate the requirements of biodiversity legislation to the sea users. At best, it identifies areas of high nature conservation value and encourages the designation of protected areas. Could it even enhance the social acceptance of environmental legislation by fostering synergies between interests? 

MSP implies collaboration among stakeholders, sectors, disciplines, and neighboring countries. Collaboration helps to create a broad knowledge base, building on shared understanding. Successful collaboration can significantly improve policy coherence and legitimacy, thereby also leading to more effective MSP in biodiversity conservation.  

There are several existing platforms of collaboration at the EU, regional, and national levels. For instance, the EU Member States Expert Group on MSP serves as a platform for MSP practitioners and experts to share experiences. The HELCOM-VASAB working group operating in the Baltic Sea is an example of a regional organization fostering cross-sector coordination.  

MSP is practiced by all EU member states, whose legislations acknowledge the importance of ensuring the compatibility of marine activities with environmental conservation. Our MSP4BIO analysis indicates that biodiversity is prioritized highly in many cases.   

But it also faces challenges   

However, the level of ambition in the actual operationalization of biodiversity-related objectives remains low. Economic sector needs are often weighed higher than biodiversity. Thus, the role of MSP in biodiversity mainstreaming is uncertain, and its potential as a process for balancing societal ambitions is not fully utilized.  

In our study, we identified different types of barriers behind biodiversity mainstreaming:  

Institutional barriers: 

Guidelines for the implementation of MSP and its role in biodiversity protection are ambiguous. The ecosystem-based approach is an important concept that helps integrate biodiversity conservation within MSP. However, definitions vary, and sub-terms have emerged, leaving significant room for interpretation.    

In some countries, MSP is only a strategic guidance document and not legally binding. This may limit its effectiveness in directly enhancing nature conservation. Additionally, MSP is not always acknowledged as a tool for achieving good environmental status. 

Organizational barriers: 

The governance arrangements for MSP do not necessarily match the need to support the pursuit of environmental objectives. This may be the case if environmental administration is separate from MSP administration and coordination is weak. Policy making can be siloed or restricted by absence of necessary mandates. Coordination between governance levels, domains, and actors is often insufficient. MSP’s influence is often limited to spatial allocation and does not extend to other policy areas.  

Connecting MSP with biodiversity actions may suffer from a lack of mechanisms. In many countries, MSP does not have the mandate to designate protected areas, which is usually within the remit of nature conservation administrations. Without coordinated planning between these authorities and the MSP process, MSP cannot proactively support nature conservation ambitions. 

Mechanisms for stakeholder participation to contribute effectively to MSP are often poor, which further reduces success in coordination between sectors and interests. Especially centralized planning may be difficult for regional stakeholders to participate, and this may lead to undermining the goals of marine regions. 

Operational or technical barriers: 

Stakeholders’ or political pressure leads to the prioritization of socio-economic issues. This can result in ‘biodiversity pockets’ being established in areas that are uninteresting to economic sectors yet are not key areas for nature conservation either. In contrast, human impacts may increase in threatened areas.  

The concept of ‘good environmental status’ relates to the ability of ecosystems to produce ecosystem services. It may mislead MSP to value biodiversity as a source of goods or services to society instead of biodiversity as such. Species, habitats, and ecosystems should be conserved for their own sake.     

Unspecified threshold values for good environmental status together with missing scientific data and knowledge weaken the possibilities of MSP to consider biodiversity in a consistent way. Short-term perspective in MSP leads to prioritizing economic values over the wellbeing of ecosystems.  

Resource barriers: 

Limited human and financial resources lead to undermining the development of MSP processes. How could it then address biodiversity?  

What to do? 

Countries have different MSP approaches, but they all face the shared challenge of biodiversity crisis.  While MSP offers a promising framework to address biodiversity loss, removing the barriers that hamper its effectiveness will require drastic decisions.  

Are we ready to reformulate policies and guidelines, even to reconsider the status of MSP in national legislation? How to rearrange the ocean governance mechanisms to allow MSP to live to the expectations as a coordinating process, including biodiversity mainstreaming? Additionally, what strategies should be implemented to promote collaboration across organizations?  

Effective mechanisms must be established to connect MSP with biodiversity conservation actions. To support that, MSP practices must better facilitate and incentivize stakeholder participation for societal dialogue and social learning.  

Let’s do this, time is running out!  

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