“You're either at the table or you're on the table”: Charles Ehler on the importance of participating in MSP processes

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Editor’s Note: The interview below is excerpted from a longer interview MEAM conducted with Charles “Bud” Ehler in 2012. Ehler is a marine planning consultant and co-author of the MSP “bible”, the 2009 UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission guide “Marine Spatial Planning: A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management.”

MEAM: Let’s talk about “winners” and “losers”, a central concern for MSP processes. How can you convert sectors that are concerned they might lose access or territory by participating in an MSP process into willing participants in such a process?

Ehler: You can’t force stakeholders to be part of the process. People have to come to the table voluntarily because they realize they have a stake in the outcome of the MSP process. There are some good examples where stakeholders immediately become losers in the process simply by not being involved.

For example, when the Netherlands was developing its first marine spatial plan that was completed in 2005, during its first round of planning, the commercial fishing sector said, “Look, we have a small EEZ – about 50,000 square kilometers - we have to fish everywhere. We do fish everywhere. And we're not going to give away any space to oil and gas interests or marine protected areas or any other uses. We want to have access to the entire EEZ.”

The government responded, “Well that's not very reasonable because we have a lot of existing and new uses in this relatively small marine space. So come and make sure that we understand where the most important areas for your particular activities are.” And the fishing community countered, “No, we're just not interested in doing that.” So they walked away and did not participate. And two years later, the government released its plan. To no one's surprise, except perhaps that of the fishing industry, most of the space was allocated to other uses.

In this case the government had produced a plan with a map with areas allocated to wind farms and a lot of area consumed by shipping lanes. The fishermen looked at these maps and said, “What are you doing? You've left us only a square inch for fishing!” They literally characterized it as “We can now only fish on a square inch of the EEZ of the Netherlands.” And the Dutch Fish Product Board wrote a report in 2004 called “Fishing on a Square Inch” as a result of what happened to commercial fishing.

The outcome of that report is interesting because in the end they said, “Look, you know, we should have been at the table. We appreciate the value of spatial planning now. And the next time the Netherlands goes through this process, we're going to be there.” And they were. The next plan in 2009 reflected the interests of the fishing industry significantly more than the first one did when they were not at the table.

The moral of that story is that you're either at the table or you're on the table. And if you're on the table, you're going to get carved up, which was exactly what happened to the interests of the fishing community in the first plan.

They were a “loser” for sure in the first one while almost all the other sectors were winners. And they decided they wanted to be a winner - or at least more of a winner than in the first round of planning. And that's the way it worked out. Things are calmer now. There's still a lot of competition for marine space in the Netherlands. But MSP has made the situation a lot more calm and reasoned than everybody just doing their own thing or some groups doing what they would like to do to the exclusion of other sectors.

I think the situation is always going to be that you're going to have to give up something in MSP if you want to win. But that loss will be to the benefit of the wider stakeholder community including all the different users. And it certainly can have real benefits to the marine environment by protecting and sustaining many areas that are ecologically or biologically important.

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