Marine Planning: Tragedy of the Acronyms, by Jeff Ardron

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Editor's note: Jeff Ardron, author of the following essay, is director of the High Seas Program at MCBI (Marine Conservation Biology Institute) in the US. He is also president of the board for PacMARA (Pacific Marine Analysis and Research Association) and an active member of the science board for the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI).

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect upon any bodies with which he may be associated.

By Jeff Ardron (jeff.ardron [at] mcbi.org)

What is it about maritime planning and its fickle love of acronyms? Last year, I was in a forum about communicating science and was informed that ecosystem-based management (EBM) was no longer a good thing to say. Apparently it was too broad and too vague, which I understand. But this was clearly bad news for all of us who had previously supported the concept. Instead, we were now supposed to talk about concrete things, like marine spatial planning (MSP). Just a few more years ago, you may recall, integrated coastal management (ICM) was passé, and we were singing praises to EBM. Have we come full circle? Is this flitting from acronym to acronym helpful?

It doesn't stop there. The US Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force evidently felt compelled to create a new variant to MSP. That is, CMSP. The Executive Order from the President states:

"The term 'coastal and marine spatial planning' means a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes areas."

Elements of EBM and ICM have been rolled into this new definition, clearly. As a result, EBM, ICM, and MSP can all start to look very much alike. These acronyms have become imbued with meanings outside of their common usage. To most laypeople, spatial planning is simply spatial planning.

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'" (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There)

To what advantage is this Humpty Dumpty naming of marine planning acronyms? Here is a suggestion: instead of expecting each new acronym to be the vessel that contains the myriad of our marine planning desires, why not look at them as a whole? Let's start with the most expansive:

Ecosystem-based management (ecosystem approach, fisheries management, etc.) is a big all-encompassing concept, arguably extending to the whole of the Earth's biosphere. This is what makes it so hard to nail down. In the spirit of simplicity, let us say that EBM means that our management is based in ecological realities. However, that alone is not enough to guide management, so read on...

Integrated management (coastal management, coastal zone management, etc.) is talking about humans and our activities, and how it is a good idea to integrate them into a single planning process - neither more nor less. (See, this is actually quite easy, isn't it!) However, this can be done quite poorly unless it is...

Systematic planning (conservation planning, etc.) argues for a structured stepwise approach that develops goals, objectives and targets. It identifies gaps and fills them. These can be non-spatial or...

Spatial planning (marine/maritime spatial planning, coastal and marine spatial planning, etc.) is, as the name suggests, the planning of how increasing numbers of humans can utilize limited space. Taken by itself, this sounds rather dull and self-evident; but taken in the context of the above elements, it has a much richer meaning.

Each of the above approaches brings an extensive scientific and grey literature of its own. In many cases the proponents of a given approach will put their acronym into the center of what I call "solar system" diagrams attached by lines radiating out to little orbiting planets that, more often than not, contain elements of everyone else's acronyms. Each of these solar systems purports to be transparent, accountable, adaptive, and so on, capturing what are really just good aspects of any planning process. Ironically, although the authors often preach integration, they rarely refer to literature outside of their chosen sphere, though there are notable exceptions.

In the Venn diagram posted at EIS-S.pdf, I put forward a different model, suggesting that each of the above approaches can stand alone, without elements of the others, but that it is the limited area where they all overlap that is of most interest. Indeed, this is the hallowed ground (or sea) over which the acronyms have been vying for attention.

To resolve this contest of the acronyms, I humbly suggest a truce, and have developed a meta-acronym that I hope will keep the peace: EIS-S. (Sounds like "Isis", the ancient Egyptian goddess, daughter of Heaven and Earth, friend to the rich and poor alike.) It stands for:Ecosystem-based, Integrated and Systematic, within a Spatial context. Will this fly? Oh, probably not! But let it be said that I tried.

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