Marine Protected Areas and Spatial Planning

(8/15/2019 12:00:00 AM)


Geospatial data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are critical to effective development and operation of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and Marine Spatial Plans (MSP). Many nations have established MPAs and conduct spatial planning for optimal management of marine resources. The MARXAN set of tools has been used in many regions of the world in support of MSP. Part of the MSP process includes Gap Analysis: a systematic assessment of what’s not being protected that relies heavily on GIS. The European Union and United States has established specific protocols and requirements for MSP. Web mapping tools are increasingly used in both the establishment of MPAs and MSPs as well as for conservation planning and management in general.


Marine Protected Areas

The process of establishing and maintaining Marine Protected Areas (MPA) has been adopted around the globe with 3% of all oceans now protected ( A growing number of geospatial tools and body of data benefit creation and management of MPAs as well as contribute to establishment of new protected areas. The Marine Conservation Institute provides a status summary for MPAs in an interactive, online map with complementary data download resources at Tools such as this can be applied to not only understanding of MPAs at a global scale, but with targeted data, web maps can be setup to help monitor and manage individual MPAs. The United States maintains an interactive map of “de facto” MPAs -- areas protected for reasons other than conservation such as economic use, human health/safety, protection of government or private property or national security (

The process of setting up a Marine Protected Area includes assessing the myriad uses and where these occur. Geographic Information Systems are used in quantifying uses off the coast of California in the California Uses interactive web map at Data were collected and tied to a detailed grid for use in the web map. The web map allows managers to get a list of uses in any grid cell such as sailing, fishing, and commercial fishing. Grid cells are color coded by use so that areas of high use are immediately identifiable. If well-maintained with current information, a site like this is a great planning and management tool.

The U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration catalogued GIS-based decision support tools for MPAs including coastal protection:


Marine Spatial Planning

Spatial planning recognizes the importance of location for a variety of activities and resources. Documenting areas of potential use-conflict is a key component in any Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) and not only helps avoid conflict but also can improve a region’s economy and environment through location intelligence. The three-dimensional nature of marine environments adds complexity to planning efforts; geographic data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) used to manipulate, analyze and display the data have become essential to MSP.

Many nations around the world have recognized the importance of marine spatial planning (Figure 7). The European Union and the United States have each developed standard procedures and approaches for conducting marine spatial planning.


Figure 7. Core justifications for Marine Spatial Planning adopted by the European Union.


MARXAN is a commonly used set of geospatial software that aids in the creation of MSPs. Developed in Australia in 2000, MARXAN has been applied in regions around the world including terrestrial. Within a modeling framework that imposes real-world limitations on the number and size of areas that can be conserved, MARXAN considers multiple potential areas and sites based on attributes and spatial configurations and determines optimal combinations for maximal conservation. The modeling is designed to be iterative with multiple adjustments to inputs deriving several optimal solutions for decision makers to consider. An example raw output from a MARXAN model is shown in Figure 8.




Figure 8. MARXAN output showing optimal zonation and area uses.


Gap Analysis

Gap Analysis is part of both the planning for resource use and the subsequent management of resources. In essence, Gap Analysis is the process of comparing current conditions with desired future conditions. The analysis is often used to identify what and where resources are not being managed but should be. GIS is a key tool in Gap Analysis.

Gap Analysis helps answer questions such as....

      Where are the biodiversity conservation areas and who manages them?

      How much of a specific plant community or animal species’ habitat is held by each type of management organization?

      How much of a species’ habitat is in protected areas?

      Which areas host the most species?

A Gap Analysis may also assess and map environmental sensitivity to a variety of threats. In the U.S., for example, shorelines are indexed for sensitivity to oil spills. This aids in the planning process and plays an important part in response to oil spills.

The development of a Marine Protected Area or a Marine Spatial Plan usually involves a Gap Analysis to determine how future management should be performed. The U.S. Geological Survey has developed several web maps to support Gap Analysis The online map viewers include land cover, designated protected areas and species distributions. These tools are used in Gap Analysis and contribute to development of protected areas and spatial plans.

Examples -

GIS is used in planning, managing and communicating. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses a variety of web maps to inform both the public and managers about the locations of different natural resources and threats to them that may impact the environment or economy. The Geospatial Fisheries Information or GeoFin is a set of web tools designed to aid in fish conservation planning (

The U.S. National Park Service uses the “Park Atlas” to aid in a variety of planning efforts. The Park Atlas constitutes a web mapping application for each of the four hundred plus units of the park system. Each is built in a similar way and presents core operational and resource data in a ready-to-use, tool-rich environment to bring spatial understanding to planning. The majority of the Park Atlas web maps are internal to the park service; however, a few public-facing atlases have been established. The Sequoia Kings Canyon atlas is one example:

These are just two examples of a growing number of applications that develop and stage geospatial data for use in conservation, resource management and planning.


VIFEP (USAID workshop)


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