World Ocean Observer - Ocean Zoning

Ocean Zoning is Coming! Ocean Zoning is Coming!
Music to Some Ears, A Fearsome Sound to Others

Tundi Agardy, Ph.D.

Ocean zoning may be an inevitable future development as nations and
communities struggle to better manage marine resources and limit
negative impacts on ecosystems. Yet by all accounts, the "z word" is
used with trepidation by decision makers, even in places where the move
from land use planning to similar spatial management offshore has
already begun.

What is ocean zoning? Who has done or is currently using ocean zoning? Why do government officials rarely use the term, opting instead to speak more ambiguously of spatial management? Finally, does ocean zoning offer the world a radical new approach to making our use of the seas more sustainable

What is Ocean Zoning?

Ocean zoning is a planning tool that comes straight out of the land use planning methodologies developed in the 1970s and used at the municipal, county, state, regional, and national levels. As on land, it allows a strategic allocation of uses based on a determination of an area's suitability for those uses, and reduction of user conflicts by separating incompatible activities. There are generally two components to an ocean zoning plan: 1) a map that depicts the zones and 2) a set of regulations or standards applicable to each type of zone created.1 While the concept has been slow to gain public acceptance, it is increasingly popular with marine resource managers and conservationists2.

The term ocean zoning has been brought up now and again as managers have struggled to slow or halt coastal degradation and over-exploitation of marine resources. Even more often, government agencies, conservationists, and planners explore the potential for using ocean zoning without actually invoking the term. Such people speak of comprehensive ocean planning, marine spatial management, place-based conservation, and the like. Although the ocean zoning concept itself is just a natural extension of what we do on land, for some reason it is feared. Thus far most wholesale ocean zoning efforts have stayed in the realm of theory, in part because of this fear.


Marine spatial management really began with indigenous coastal and island cultures and their marine tenure and taboo practices, and then became more widespread (and legitimate, in the eyes of some), when formal marine protected areas started to be established. Then, when practitioners realized that few marine protected areas were meeting broad scale conservation objectives, and that an ad hoc, one-off approach would not lead to effective large scale conservation3,the concept of marine protected area networks emerged as a way to strategically plan marine protected areas with the hope that the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts4. A system or network that links these protected areas has a dual nature: connecting physical sites deemed ecologically critical (ecological networks), and linking people and institutions in order to make effective conservation possible (human networks). Networks or systems of marine protected areas have great advantages in that they spread the costs of habitat protection across a wider array of user groups and communities while providing benefits to all.

While networks are a step in the right direction, even strategically-planned networks do not necessarily lead to effective marine conservation at the largest scale5. Recognizing that more was needed than marine protected area networks, planners began to explore the concept of marine corridors and broader spatial management. Essentially, a corridor uses a marine protected area network as a starting point, and determines through conservation policy-analysis, which threats to marine ecology and biodiversity cannot be addressed through a spatial management scheme. The connections between the various marine protected areas in a network are maintained by policy initiatives or management reform in areas outside the protected areas. In such corridors (or regional planning initiatives by any other name) marine policies are directed not at the fixed benthic and marine habitat that typically is the target for protected area conservation, but rather at the water quality in the water column, and the condition of marine organisms within it. Corridor concepts provide a way for planners and decision-makers to think about the broader ocean context in which protected areas sit, and develop conservation interventions that complement spatial management techniques like marine protected areas and networks. Corridors and regional planning efforts are few and far between, however, and most marine conservation still occurs through a piecemeal, almost desperate process without large scale visioning and coordinated strategic action.

But in the minds of many, a real quantum leap in conservation effectiveness occurs when planners scale up from MPA networks and corridor concepts to full scale ocean zoning6. Ocean zoning provides many benefits over smaller scale interventions: it can help overcome the shortcomings of MPAs and MPA networks in moving us towards sustainability; it is based on a recognition of the relative ecological importance and environmental vulnerabilities of different areas; it allows harmonization with terrestrial land use planning; it can help better articulate private sector roles and responsibilities and maximize private sector investment by allowing free market principles to work in concert with government protections, and it moves us away from the terrestrial focus of traditional integrated coastal management efforts to more effective, integrated, and holistic environmental management that fully includes uses of, and impacts on, the oceans.

Who Has Done or Is Currently Doing Ocean Zoning?

Whereas zoning on land is an established practice that has occurred in various forms for centuries, ocean zoning is a relative new phenomenon. Historically, most zoning has been put in place as part of the management framework of multiple-use marine protected areas (MPAs). The best and most often cited examples include the originally mandated zoning and periodic rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia; the use zones of Netherlands Antillean MPAs such as Bonaire and Saba Marine Parks; the zoning plan developed for the Mafia Island Marine Park in Tanzania; the trinationally-managed zonation of the Wadden See in northern Europe; and the establishment of "A", "B" and "C" zones in many Mediterranean MPAs, such as those in Italian MPAs, in Port Cros, France, and elsewhere7, among others.


Biosphere reserves, whether on land or in the sea, also utilize zonation by identifying core areas for protection, surrounding those with buffer areas, and casting the whole rest of the reserve as a "transition zone" or "zone of cooperation"8. UNESCO struggled for years over the question of whether the terrestrial model of biosphere reserves would work in the coastal and marine environment, and periodically toyed with the idea of introducing some new concepts in the ocean realm, such as dynamic cores and "areas of ecological interest" - however most coastal biosphere reserves are true to the time-tested land-based form of planning, with core, buffer, and transition zones9.

It is not meant as a slight on the hard work and dedication of MPA planners to say that zoning within MPAs and Biosphere Reserves is often highly simplistic. The most common zoning patterns are those that restrict all extractive use in certain areas. The zeal with which many conservationists and scientists promote no-take reserves may be attributable in part to recognizing that simplicity can sometimes mean feasibility (although it is also sometimes true that, as H.L. Mencken wrote, "For every complex question there is a simple answer, and it is wrong"). There are, however, large scale marine parks with complex zoning, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Due to their large geographic scale, these efforts are more like the regional and national ocean zoning initiatives that are beginning to crop up than like the small scale, simplistic zoning of most MPAs.

There are important precedents for regional zoning approaches, suggesting that strategic, large scale planning does hold promise for more effective marine conservation. One is the relatively recent coupling of coastal zone management with catchment basin or watershed management, as has occurred under the European Water Framework Directive and projects undertaken under the LOICZ (Land - Sea Interactions in the Coastal Zone) initiative. These fully integrated initiatives, with affecting and affected parties taking part in the planning process, have resulted in lower pollutant loads and improved conditions in some estuaries10.

Regional approaches utilizing MPA networks and systems, which may well presage later ocean zoning, are also being discussed and developed in the Mediterranean under the Barcelona Convention (the Mediterranean Regional Seas agreement), in North America under the auspices of the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, and at the national scale in countries ranging from Australia to the United States. Smaller regions such as the Gulf of Maine, shared by Canada and the U.S., are also focal points for regional cooperation, as demonstrated by the multilateral work undertaken as part of UNEP's Global Program of Action11 and the work of the Gulf of Maine Council12.

Many countries that struggle with how to accommodate multiple uses of ocean space and resources are now experimenting with larger scale zoning13, usually referred to as "marine spatial planning" 14. According to participants at a meeting hosted by UNESCO last year (November 2006), China already has legislation for zoning its territorial sea, and the United Kingdom is drafting national legislation that will authorize marine spatial management.15 Both Germany and Belgium have taken steps to extent land use planning utilizing zoning to the marine environment, and a working group of the Oslo-Paris Convention is drafting guidelines for marine spatial planning in the northeast Atlantic. New Zealand government officials working on its new Ocean Policy are also exploring ocean zoning within the country's EEZ16. Likewise, the Canadian government is toying with the idea of ocean zoning as it implements its policies and programs under the Oceans Act.

In the United States, some individual states have taken the lead on exploring the concept of zoning, and making it likely that zoning plans will first be implemented at the state level, within the 3-mile jurisdictions that the states control. For instance, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is exploring spatial management options for state waters, and has established itself as a national leader in thinking about ecosystem based management and the role of zoning in it. This is in part a response to two developments that were viewed as possible threats to Massachusetts' coastal waters: 1) the siting of an LNG terminal outside Boston, and 2) the proposal to develop an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. The state of California is also exploring zoning within state waters, as part of the activities being undertaken by the California Marine Life Protection Act. Whether ocean zoning in these state-led initiatives will be housed under the state coastal planning and management agencies (OCZM or similar), or whether new ocean zoning entities will be established, will depend on the capacity of existing agencies and the resources available to the state. With the increasing attention and interest in ocean zoning, it is possible that the federal government will follow the lead of the states and assess what kind of zoning should occur where in federal waters. This would bring the U.S. in step with the many maritime nations that are developing marine policies that embrace ocean zoning. A National Center for Ecological Synthesis (NCEAS) group (at University of California Santa Barbara) has been working on the topic since late 2005.

On the international front, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO has convened the first of what may be several international workshops on spatial management ( 17. A major conclusion of this initial meeting was that because human uses of ocean space often conflict with one another, marine spatial planning is a logical response to organize human activities in space and time to minimize conflict.

Why the Reluctance to Use the Term "Zoning"?

So it is that ocean zoning may indeed be inevitable, and may inevitably prove to be the kind of paradigm-shifting tool that marine conservationists have long dreamed of. Yet not all agree that ocean zoning is a good idea, and there is much reluctance in policy circles for openly embracing the idea and even for using the term "zoning" in public. This is due in part to philosophical arguments against treating commons property in much the same way we treat private property on land, and in part to questions about whether such an inherently complex task as large scale ocean zoning is feasible.

A recent article in the journal Science speaks to the enormous possibilities presented by ocean zoning, yet even these cutting edge scientists balked at using the term "ocean zoning"18. Similarly, the U.S. Commission on Oceans fully supported an integrated spatial management, but was seemed even less willing to insinuate that ocean zoning was a possibility. In a statement on the Joint Initiative of the Joint Oceans Commission, which is a partnership between the U.S. Commission on Oceans and the Pew Oceans Commission that preceded it, it is clear that the zoning concept is embraced, if not explicitly by name: "development of a coordinated offshore management regime is part of a suite of governance reforms on which the Joint Initiative will be working in the new year"19. So it seems that U.S. decision makers and policy experts are ready to get on the zoning bandwagon, as long as it is not labeled as such.

In practical terms, developing zoning plans may be difficult, especially if competing interests attach values to certain areas. Time horizons for ocean zone planning are expected to be long - even longer than those for MPA planning, which we now recognize as being longer than what the public and decision-makers expect. Impatience with ocean zoning planning processes can be expected in our increasingly instant-gratification expecting societies. And many fear that dynamic marine ecosystems may change so appreciably over relatively short time frames as to make any zoning plan moot20.

Besides being a largely unproven methodology, the widespread resistance to ocean zoning may be a natural reaction to diminishing open access and threats to the somewhat mystical appeal of unlimited, unregulated ocean use21. Even highly dedicated marine conservationists may balk at the idea of parceling the ocean into areas according to their human use values - a common reaction to utilitarian approaches to dealing with nature. Some with extremist views assume that zoning state waters, territorial seas, and exclusive economic zones is part of a conservative conspiracy to privatize what should be common property22. Finally, many planners may fear ocean zoning because it appears to be a fixed construct, wholly unsuitable to the ever-changing marine and coastal environment and the changing human societies supported by it. However, it would be a fallacy to assume that once a zoning plan is developed it is cast in stone. If anything, zoning could pave the way towards two widely claimed goals of the world conservation community: putting ecosystem-based management into practice, and practicing adaptive management to increase the efficiency and responsiveness of our marine and coastal management regimes.

Does Ocean Zoning Offer a Radical New Approach to Sustainability?

To date, most marine conservation has not happened on the global or regional scale - it has occurred bit by bit, as a result of individuals, communities, and institutions responding to a particular need at a particular site. Traditional marine conservation interventions have included marine protected areas, regulations to protect critical habitat of a species, and fisheries restrictions pertaining to a threatened stock. The size of these responses is usually far too small to address the bigger (and growing) problems of unsustainable use of resources, indirect degradation of marine ecosystems, and large scale declines in environmental quality, such as those brought about by climate change, since virtually all the world's nearshore areas experience multiple threats that act simultaneously to degrade ecosystems. And because oceans are indeed the ultimate sink, and the fate of coastal waters is so strongly tied to the condition of coastal lands, rivers and estuaries, successful conservation means addressing not only marine use but land use as well, far up into watersheds23. These facts inevitably lead us to explore the possibility of large scale zoning of ocean areas.


An undeniable trend towards more strategic approaches to marine conservation is apparent in many coastal countries. It is fortunate that these strategies are helping agencies and institutions following their mandates while at the same time overcoming one of the greatest constraints to effective marine conservation: ignoring how they contribute to the big picture beyond their regional, sectoral or agency boundaries24. An integrated, systematic and hierarchical approach to conservation and sustainable use is needed to allow nations to address various geographic scopes and scales of continental marine conservation problems simultaneously in a more holistic manner25. By using large marine regions (ecoregions, regional seas, semi-enclosed seas, etc.) as the focus of management rather than individual sites, agencies can come together to address the full spectrum of threats and embark on developing a common vision on the future of the oceans under their jurisdiction.

The steps taken to develop and implement a zoning plan can be analogous to those taken in MPA planning. That is, once a region to be zoned is bounded (either by jurisdictional considerations or by ecosystem boundaries), the areas within can be examined according to their ecological significance, value and use, and condition. Zoning patterns that emerge from a planning process will be based on choice of criteria planners use to attach priorities to sites, as well as the mechanisms employed in the process.

For example, zonation can grow out of existing use patterns, with the end result essentially codifying the already existing segregation of uses. This was largely the case in the original Great Barrier Reef Marine Park zoning plan, especially that of the first zoning done in the Northern Section. Alternatively, zonation may be based on the relative ecological importance of areas within the region, and inherent vulnerabilities of different habitats or species. This is the process driving the Belgian biological valuation exercise, and is presumably the underlying philosophy of the emerging Ocean Policy of New Zealand. In stark contrast, zonation may also be based on a kind of conservation-in-reverse process, whereby areas NOT needing as much protection or management as others would be highlighted. Such high-use zones could be "sacrificial" areas, already so degraded or heavily used that massive amounts of conservation effort would not be cost-effective, or they might be areas determined to be relatively unimportant in an ecological sense.

It is likely that future zoning efforts will use all three of these processes in concert. Existing MPAs and MPA networks will form an important foundation for all zoning plans, regardless of the process or criteria used, because they are de facto precursors of a certain kind of zone. Zoned ocean areas within a region could be administered by a variety of means - by a single overseeing state or federal agency that designs the zoning plans, by a coordinating body that ties together areas variously implemented by different government agencies, or by an umbrella framework such as the Biosphere Reserve Programme26. The latter has benefits in that local communities become a part of the network, ecologically critical areas are afforded strict protection while less important or less sensitive areas are managed for sustainable use, and the biosphere reserve designation itself carries international prestige (and can be used to leverage funds). For shared coastal and marine resources, regional agreements may prove most effective, especially when such agreements capitalize on better understandings of costs and benefits accruing from shared responsibilities in conserving the marine environment27. A good example of such a regional body in the terrestrial/freshwater environment that may be a model for marine environments as well is the Mekong River Commission28.

Through such large scale zoning efforts, goals such as biodiversity conservation, conservation of rare and threatened species, maintenance of natural ecosystem functioning at a regional scale, and management of fisheries, recreation, education, and research could be addressed in a more coordinated and complementary fashion. The integrated approach inherent in zoning is a natural response to a complex set of ecological processes and environmental problems, and is an efficient way to allocate scarce time and resources to combating the issues that parties deem to be most critical. Nations and/or agencies that participate reap the benefits of more effective conservation, while bearing fewer costs by spreading management costs widely and by taking advantage of economies of scale in management training, enforcement, scientific monitoring, and the like. Ocean zoning is a crucial new tool now available to planners and managers. All that is needed is for visionary leadership: leaders that understand the value of the ocean zoning tool and are not afraid to use it, and who have the strength of conviction to move such a complicated agenda forward.




1 Courtney, F. and J. Wiggin (2006). Ocean zoning for the Gulf of Maine: A Background paper. Available at

2 Hendrick, D (2005) The new frontier: zoning rules to protect marine resources. E: The Environmental Magazine March-April 2005

3 Allison, GW, J Lubchenco, and M Carr (1998) Marine reserves are necessary but not sufficient for marine conservation. Ecological Applications 8(1),S79-S92.

4 See Roberts CM, Branch G, Bustamante RH, Castilla JC, Dugan J, Halpern BS, Lafferty KD, Leslie H, Lubchenco J, McArdle D, Ruckelshaus M, Warner RR. 2003. Application of ecological criteria in selecting marine reserves and developing reserve networks. Ecological Applications 13 (1 (supplement)): 215-228.; and Roberts, CM, B Halpern, SR Palumbi, and RR Warner (2001) Designing marine reserve networks: Why small, isolated protected areas are not enough. Conservation Biology In Practice 2(3):12-19.

5 Christie, P, A White and P Deguit (2002) Starting point or solution? Community-based marine protected areas in the Philippines. Journal of Environmental Management 66: 441-454.

6 Agardy, T (1999) Ecosystem-based management: A marine perspective. Pp 44-46 in Ecosystem Management: Questions for Science and Society. E. Malby, M. Holdgate, M. Acreman, and A. Weir [eds.].Royal Holloway Inst. For Environmental Research, Virginia Water, UK

7 See for example, Villa, F, L Tunesi, and T Agardy (2001) Optimal zoning of a marine protected area: the case of the Asinara National Marine Reserve of Italy. Conservation Biology 16(2), 515-526.

8 Batisse, M (1990) Development and implementation of the biosphere reserve concept and its applicability to coastal regions. Environmental Conservation 17(2):111-116.

9 Agardy, TS (1997) Marine Protected Areas and Ocean Conservation . R.E. Landes Co., Austin TX.

10 See Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-Being. Island Press, Washington DC. MA reports and the corollary UNEP synthesis on marine and coastal systems are available on

11 See

12 See

13 Agardy, T, P Bridgewater, MP Crosby, J Day, PK Dayton, R Kenchington, D Laffoley, P McConney, PA Murray, JE Parks and L Peau (2003) Dangerous targets: Differing perspectives, unresolved issues, and ideological clashes regarding marine protected areas. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 13:1-15

14 Marine spatial planning has been defined by DEFRA as "...a strategic plan for regulating, managing, and protecting the marine environment that addresses the multiple, cumulative, and potentially conflicting uses of the sea."

15 From a press release available at

16 Two reports lay the foundation for comprehensive zoning of New Zealand's national waters: one on priorities in the 200 mile EEZ, the other a gap analysis on ocean management issues not adequately addressed. However, the development of the Oceans Policy was recently put on hold while the Government addressed foreshore and seabed issues, and came to terms with scientific uncertainties about priority areas. Now the Oceans Policy is under way again with the launch of Ocean Survey 20/20, which sets out to underpin the development of Oceans Policy and oceans management tools, according to a March 2005 government proclamation ( ).

17 A Technical Report of the meeting is expected by mid February 2007 and will be posted to the website

18 Crowder, L.B., G. Osherenko, O.R. Young, S. Airame, E.A. Norse, N. Baron, J.C. Day, F. Douvere, C.N. Ehler, B.S. Halpern, S.J. Langdon, K.L. McLeod, J.C. Ogden, R.E. Peach, A.A. Rosenberg, and J.A. Wilson. (2006) Resolving mismatches in U.S. ocean governance. Science 313:617-618

19 The Joint Oceans Commission is a collaborative venture between members of the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy; see

20 Meir, E, S Andelman, and HP Possingham (2004) Does conservation planning matter in a dynamic and uncertain world? Ecology Letters (2004) 7:625-622

21 See for instance Blaustein, R (2005) Salt in our blood: Is there a philosophy of the oceans? Cape Cod Times Forum, Sunday September 4, 2005 F-1, F-5.

22 See Oshrenko, G. (in press) New Discourses on Ocean Rights: Understanding Property Rights, the Public Trust, and Ocean Governance, available at

23 Kay, R and J Alder (2005) Coastal Planning and Management. 2nd edition. EF&N Spoon, London (UK).

24 National Research Council 2001 National Research Council (US) (2001) Marine Protected Areas: Tools for Sustaining Ocean Ecosystems. Committee on the Evaluation, Design and monitoring of marine reserves and protected areas in the United States, Ocean Studies Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC. 288 pp.

25 Griffis, RB and KW Kimball (1996) Ecosystem approaches to coastal and ocean stewardship. Ecological Applications 6(3): 708-712.

26 UNESCO (1996) Biosphere Reserves: The Seville Strategy and the Statutory Framework of the World Network. UNESCO, Paris, 1996, 19pp

27 Kimball, L (2001) International Ocean Governance. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland

28 See