This is a copy of a blog post I've done for our EU partners in BirdLife Europe, examining how spatial planning at sea can deliver for the environment and economic prosperity, particularly renewables and meeting our climate change targets. Remember to add your voice to over 250,000 others calling for the Nature Directives mentioned below not to be opened up by clicking here.

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1979 was a year to remember. It was when the first ever piece of EU nature legislation was adopted, the Wild Birds Directive. Then came the Habitats Directive in 1992, and together the “Nature Directives” were born, underpinning nature protection in Europe. 1979 was also the same year that the eminent fisheries biologist H.A. Cole asked…

What is wrong with the conception of sea areas managed with particular objectives as priorities? ... It has long been accepted that the use of land must be planned and its management controlled with human welfare as the dominant interest; why is it so difficult to accept this view when considering the sea?”

Cole worried that human conflicts in the sea were harming marine resources, especially fisheries. At the time, marine spatial planning (MSP) was developing in conservation areas such as the Great Barrier Reef, and he wondered how it could be expanded to include all activities and areas.

MSP was then forgotten for a while, but has just come back with a bang and is being seen as the key to unlock economic growth in Europe, so much so that it now has a Directive of its own (the “Maritime Spatial Planning Directive”). Why all the sudden interest? Two words: offshore wind. The development of offshore renewable energy in the last 15 years has been a game changer for MSP in Europe. Several EU countries have used MSP to find areas for wind energy, and more recently wave and tidal energy.

This is great news, but it also comes at a time when the Nature Directives are under attack and in danger of being opened and weakened, threatening the way in which protected sites are designated and managed in Europe. Some people have claimed that the Nature Directives are hindering economic “Blue Growth”, a favourite Brussels buzzword. But it’s important to remember that the background for both MSP and the Nature Directives are shared, arising from the need to stop further environmental decline, by protecting the best sites and managing the rest carefully, to help allow marine ecosystems to recover.

This is somewhat of a contradiction to the EU’s vision of using MSP to drive economic growth first and foremost. That is, if properly implemented, both the Nature Directives and MSP can improve environmental quality and investment certainty at the same time. The truth is that the Nature Directives are not a burden to human activity or renewables development. When the UK questioned this in 2012 they discovered “implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.” Delays or costs in sustainable development come not from the existence of the Nature Directives, but precisely the opposite! It is because they have not yet been fully implemented in the marine area, even after 36 years in the case of the Birds Directive.

And you could say the same about MSP. The absence of a clear system for allocating human uses at sea led to a free-for-all attitude which caused the overexploitation of resources that H.A. Cole described. In theory at least, MSP can support the Directives in restoring the environment, by reducing the impacts on wildlife that this human conflict causes. By considering the environment when allocating areas for renewables, developers have more certainty that their projects will succeed, while a clear set of protected areas with proper management measures means that activities know exactly what they can and can’t do in these areas.

Evidence is a key tool to unlock this potential. For example, work we have done here at the RSPB is showing how seabirds are interacting with wind farm areas during the breeding season (see below for example). We know more about interactions between activities and the environment than ever, and we can use this information to be more careful about where activities should or shouldn’t take place.

Foraging tracks from the EU-funded FAME project, conducted by the RSPB, show how birds interact with, in these cases, wind farm zones in the UK part of the North Sea. 

As we move into a new generation, we must channel the original aims of both MSP and the Nature Directives, to safeguard the ecosystem as a basis to encourage sustainable use. Consideration of the ecosystem does not have to limit development, and can in fact proactively encourage it in the right places.

H.A. Cole’s vision is coming true, and it’s up to us to make sure it delivers for wildlife, both now and into the future.

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The original article can be found at http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/news/planning-our-seas and is part of a special forthcoming marine issue of BirdLife's Europe and Central Asia newsletter. 

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