Reflections on a Marine Spatial Planning Workshop

Reflections on a Marine Spatial Planning Workshop


Jenny Weitzman, Interdisciplinary PhD candidate, Marine Affairs Program, Dalhousie University 

Brianna Maxwell, Bachelor of Community Design (Hons.) candidate, Dalhousie University 

Tobbi Dyer, Master of Information candidate, Dalhousie University 


If you have ever been to Halifax, you can likely picture the iconic Halifax skyline and magnificent harbour that makes this area unique. While this view is easy to see from downtown Dartmouth, or the bridges connecting Halifax to Dartmouth, we toured Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin by boat giving our workshop group a better understanding of the many uses of the harbour and shoreline. This experience showed us the need for coordinating all of this activity for which Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is designed to do. We passed industrial, commercial and residential buildings along the waterfront, the historic fortifications of George’s Island, Point Pleasant Park, the dockyards of the Canadian Forces naval base, Seaview Park which is the site of the former community of Africville, the container port, and the easily identifiable red and white smokestacks of the Tuff’s Cove power generation facility. We were able to look up at the harbour bridges and directly at their foundations. The Halifax-Dartmouth ferry crossed our path several times during our voyage. As we viewed the many uses of the harbour and learned more about its history, the MSP lessons that we had learned over the previous days at the Marine Planning Process Workshop began to sink in. 

This introductory MSP workshop, which was organized by the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on April 30th and May 1st, 2019, included an interdisciplinary team of presenters and attendees from across North America. Over the course of two days, we completed an interactive journey of the MSP process by working in groups to create a marine spatial plan for a fictional marine area. This cooperation-focused training helped each of us to understand the MSP process in a new way. We learned that at its core, MSP is about bringing together diverse users to make informed decisions about the sustainable use of our oceans. In reflecting on this workshop and the boat tour that connected these concepts, we, as three young researchers in the field of MSP, have identified key takeaways for those who are learning about MSP.


Example of the diverse uses along the Halifax coastline. Photo by Tobbi Dyer, May 1, 2019


Marine Spatial Planning is important globally and locally  

This workshop embodied the recent interest and enthusiasm towards a shift in thinking about planning for our marine systems. While many jurisdictions have long been planning activities in their marine environments, few places in Canada have a clear spatial vision or plan for their marine systems. There are challenges, as well as potential, in coordinating with transboundary locations that may have very different needs and interests. Unlike terrestrial planning, which is a well-established discipline, marine spatial planning is still being explored and developed (see, for example, Gazzola, Roe and Cowie, 2015). MSP is more commonly used at national and regional scales and, while much academic literature focuses on the global importance of MSP (e.g., for addressing food insecurity, competing and conflicting marine uses, and encouraging the growth of certain industries), local level application is less common. This workshop was important for discussing and developing collaborative MSP practices at the local level which could be viewed as a microcosm representative of larger jurisdictions, and managing marine uses at the scale of a municipality (see, for example: Frazão Santos et al., 2018; Lester et a.l, 2018; Lombard et al., 2019; Moore, Brown, Kobryn, & Strickland-Munro, 2017; Yates & Schoeman, 2013). As student researchers who are familiar with MSP through our work, but not necessarily through direct experience, the focus of the workshop discussion and interactive scenarios were helpful for connecting the need for a harbour-level MSP with the global importance of MSP. This local level emphasis also made it easier to understand the MSP process and to work collaboratively with fellow participants (as stakeholders in the scenario).


Decisions are affected by the perspectives of group participants

To simulate a real-world MSP scenario and to have the opportunity to discuss perspectives with a wider range of people, we were divided into groups with participants from a variety of disciplines and levels of experience. Despite our diversity, there was an almost universal acknowledgement of the importance of planning for climate change and the need to protect sensitive areas. This perspective, however, may not be reflected to the same degree in the general population, or by other groups in real-world scenarios. We did not have scientific data about our fictional study areas, and so we often made decisions that were based on our belief systems, or best judgement, rather than on evidence. This approach reflects general community groups in decision-making scenarios, although more effective decisions are made when expert knowledge is shared with stakeholders (Van Ast & Lasse Gerrits, 2017).

Despite being placed in a simulation where the location and scenario were fictional, and where we were not assigned stakeholder roles, predictable group dynamics emerged. Some people were more vocal and pushed further to realize their goals, while others were more passive and didn’t share their views or even participate. There were times when a group member would be suddenly adamant about a position, without identifying previously what their perspective was. This experience was disconcerting, making it harder to establish trust and connections within the group, but it presented a realistic scenario. These power dynamics and our knowledge gaps demonstrated how difficult and complex MSP can be (Grimmel, Calado, Fonseca, & de Vivero, 2019). 


MSP demands a holistic perspective

The diverse perspectives brought together in this workshop were at times frustrating. Our eyes were opened to see problems from a different angle, which was ultimately necessary for answering the plethora of questions that emerged. During our activities, we were often left with questions not only about the societal goals, economic priorities, and political drivers, but also of the biophysical and ecological features of the marine system that was the focus of our exercise. For example, to support our region’s fisheries, we need to know both where the fish go and how many there are, as well as how the other activities could influence the survival and growth of the stocks. In marine systems, the activities, resources, and goals are fundamentally imbedded within the ecological systems, so it becomes impossible to effectively manage one without knowledge of the other and about how they interact. Through this type of management, MSP demands diverse knowledge sets and holistic thinking about how social and economic activities interact with the surrounding marine environment.     


Planning in marine systems is no easy feat 

If we could walk away with one lesson from the workshop, it would be that planning in marine systems is not easy – it is complex and often fraught with “wicked problems. At every stage of our workshop journey, each of us often felt frustrated that the problem did not have a simple answer and that we were left with more questions. 

Similar to the challenges faced in terrestrial planning, marine planning has a number of inherent complexities. First, many resources and users in marine systems are effectively moving targets. For example, where should planners set the boundary for a marine protected areas for many vulnerable and endangered marine species like whales, which can travel across countries or between ocean basins (Lascelles et al., 2014)? Marine systems are also highly dynamic and an event like a hurricane may drastically alter a marine ecosystem or substantially shift local priorities.  

Second, the ocean is arguably owned by no one, but used by all. This means that many marine systems end up as a jungle of competing uses and overlapping claims. In marine environments, activities occupy a three-dimensional space, and activities can simultaneously take place on and below the seafloor (e.g., gas and oil mining), on the ocean surface (e.g., wind farms), and within the water in between (e.g., fishing). In all of this we also have to consider the fourth dimension:  time. Like terrestrial planning, marine planning needs to account for how the use of a space differs at different times of the day and year (e.g., the migration of marine animals). 

Third, much of the needed information to evaluate the trade-offs in objectives and overlapping uses in complex marine systems is not available. Recent years have seen a surge in decision-support tools for MSP across the world. Yet, these tools have had varied success, especially in data-poor areas of the world (Lombard et al., 2019). One reason many of these gaps exist could be that we are only starting to ask, and answer, questions about how to achieve integrated MSP. 


Concluding thoughts 

We learned that building effective MSP processes requires collaboration and integration of diverse forms of knowledge to answer complex problems and manage multiple trade-offs. Through this workshop and the resulting discussions, we each developed a better individual and collective understanding of the complexities of MSP. As young researchers working on topics related to social license and planning in coastal communities, this new understanding of MSP will be useful for informing our work. We hope that our key takeaways from this workshop will also help to inform others who are learning about MSP, and that perhaps the next time we picture an iconic seascape like Halifax, we will consider how marine space is shared now and in the future.



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