Case Study: Creating a Zoning Plan for Belgium's North Sea, with Lessons from Land-Based Zoning


Belgium's relatively small ocean area, totaling 3600 km2, is under great pressure, being centrally located in one of the most heavily exploited marine areas in the world. The many uses of marine resources and space in this patch of the North Sea, the increasing user conflicts, and the emergence of new uses has required a move away from what was previously an ad hoc approach to managing the marine environment. The new direction is a forward-looking strategy using marine spatial planning (MSP).

"Belgium has done some pioneering work on MSP in previous years," says Fanny Douvere, a consultant on UNESCO's MSP program. "It is one of the first countries that implemented a multiple-objective marine spatial plan, long before MSP was even on the European/international agenda." In 2002, a federal minister was appointed to manage the Belgian Part of the North Sea (BPNS), and shortly thereafter a master plan for the BPNS was set. Although there remains no technical basis for marine spatial planning in Belgian law, the first two phases of the master plan are now operational. The plan addresses the core issues of developing offshore wind production, designating marine protected areas, accounting for sand and gravel extraction, and other factors.

Douvere says Belgium is also noteworthy for its anticipatory approach to new uses of the sea and seabed. She cites work done in the context of the GAUFRE project, whose name is a Dutch acronym for "Toward a Spatial Structure Plan for Sustainable Management of the North Sea". Involving multiple research teams at the University of Ghent, the two-year GAUFRE project (2003-2004) developed alternative scenarios for future use of ocean space. "This is in contrast to most other ocean zoning efforts (academic or otherwise), which normally concentrate on what exists today, not where we are going, or want to go, in the future," she says. GAUFRE's scenarios have informed the ongoing planning process for the BPNS.

Zoning in Belgium presents an example of how COZ could proceed in other marine areas with a high degree of use and heavy congestion of users. However, Belgium's zoning process is somewhat unusual, since it grew organically out of the country's long-enshrined land-use planning. A key component of Belgium's land zoning has been what the country calls "biological valuation", in which all land areas are assessed for their intrinsic biodiversity value.

GAUFRE undertook similar biological valuations for Belgium's small marine territory. For a description of the criteria used to evaluate the relative importance of different marine areas and habitats, see For examples of the maps that resulted from such valuations, see

Because GAUFRE's marine biological valuations were performed and published after Belgium's ocean zoning began in 2002, the valuation maps have not been used to full effect in the country's zoning work. Nevertheless, marine managers and ecologists see the potential for biological valuation maps to support future marine spatial planning. Steven Degraer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, who participated in GAUFRE, is confident the valuation maps will be used. "There is definitely some government interest," he says, "but I think (and understand) that people still feel unsure about how to implement our results." This key step in moving from developing scenarios (as was done by the GAUFRE project) to developing and implementing zoning maps must rely on good information on which areas or habitats are most important to protect.

The GAUFRE website ( includes the project's final report, featuring structural maps that describe various scenarios for Belgium's ocean territory. GAUFRE leader Frank Maes of the University of Ghent says the structural maps the project developed were dynamic and explained a vision. "They are not detailed and cannot be used as a legal basis for zoning activities at sea," he says. "Rather, they are used as guiding maps for future actual zonation or reallocation of existing activities, as far as the latter is possible. The bases for the structural maps are values and principles of sustainable development, trying to merge economic, social and ecological parameters."

Maes says the maps are used in stakeholder participation aimed at developing consensus on zoning regulations. "The challenge in the future," says Maes, "will be to do this exercise in a transboundary context - e.g., structural maps for the whole North Sea. This includes stakeholder and public participation processes in all eight North Sea countries. And that's very difficult."

For more information

Fanny Douvere, UNESCO, Paris, France. E-mail: fanny.douvere [at]

Steven Degraer, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. E-mail: s.degraer [at]

Frank Maes, University of Ghent, Belgium. E-mail: frank.maes [at]

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