Decision support tools in marine spatial planning: Present applications, gaps and future perspectives

Marine Policy Volume 83, September 2017, Pages 83-91


Many decisions need to be made during the course of an MSP process, but although the use of decision support tools can help planners make decisions in a more systematic and objective way, their use is not widespread. Following an analysis of their main shortcomings and taking into account the demands of the different stages of MSP processes, new functionalities are proposed to improve the applicability of decision support tools in the future.  

Sea Basin(s): 
Application in MSP: 
Applied in an MSP process
Not sector specific
Type of Issue: 
Coexistence of uses
Cross-border cooperation
Economic aspects
Ecosystem-based approach
Environment aspects
Land-sea interactions
Resilience to climate change
Safety aspects
Sea-basin cooperation
Social aspects
Type of practice: 
Stage of MSP cycle: 
Vision and aims
Analyse spatial aspects
Develop and implement plan
Cross-border / trans-national aspect: 

Questions this practice may help answer

  • What decision support tools are currently being made use of in MSP processes?
  • What are the weaknesses and gaps of existing decision support tools?
  • What type of decision support tools will be developed in the near future?

Implementation Context

The research article analysed the current applications of decision support tools (DST) in MSP, their main gaps and the future trends of DSTs for MSP. MSP is defined as a process during which many decisions need to be made at different stages of the MSP process, including the specification of spatial and temporal boundaries, the mapping of important areas, as well as designing appropriate management actions. DSTs can assist planners in achieving these tasks in a more systematic and objective way. The research defines DSTs as ‘software-based intermediaries that provide support in an evidence-based, decision-making process’. Although there are many tools available, their use in MSP is not widespread.

Aspects / Objectives

The research aimed to review existing decision support tools and to analyse how these are being used in on-going MSP initiatives. By exploring the gaps in functions provided by existing tools from the perspective of the requirements of different stages of MSP processes, future trends concerning the development of DSTs can be defined. The research aimed to identify the shortcomings of DSTs and to propose new functionalities to improve their applicability in MSP processes.


For the purpose of this research, 34 DSTs were identified in 28 different MSP initiatives from across the globe. Subsequently, the DSTs were transferred to a matrix and were assigned to one of the seven steps of the MSP cycle as defined by the authors, according to their functionality. For the purpose of the research, the following categories of functionalities were proposed:

1)     environmental impact assessment

2)     communication

3)     data gathering

4)     economic analysis

5)     evaluation

6)     governance assistance

7)     management plan proposal

8)     scenario creation and analysis

9)     site identification

10)  socio-economic analysis

11)  uses conflicts analysis

The tools were also classified according to their characteristics, including the type of input they provide (i.e. social, economic, environmental), their technical classification (i.e. qualitative, quantitative, spatially or temporally explicit), prerequisites to run the software (i.e. GIS software, internet connection, Microsoft Excel), as well as a categorisation according to the type of output and type of tools (toolbox, website, online applications). The tools were also listed according to the type of users (i.e. authorities, planners, scientists).

Through the identification of their main shortcomings (related to functionality, application at different stages, maintenance and complexity), improvements for future DSTs were suggested.

Main Outputs / Results

The research showed that 57% of the tools identified were used for gathering data, defining the current situation and the identification of issues, constraints and future conditions (stages i, ii & iii of the MSP process as defined by the authors). See Figure 1 for more information about the results of the classification according to MSP stage.

The research concluded that the main gaps of DSTs are linked to their limited functionality, instability, high costs and a less than ideal consideration of economic and social decision problems. In addition, decision support tools are not always easy to use.

The study revealed that most DSTs were used in the first stages of the MSP cycle. According to the authors, this reflects the current level of MSP processes across the globe. It could thus be expected that in the future new tools will be developed, to assist planners with later stages of the MSP process, such as refining goals and objectives or evaluation and monitoring.

Looking towards the future, the research suggests that DSTs should consider both the spatial and temporal dynamics of the marine environment. They should also be made easy to use and freely available. In addition, future tools should be integrated and multi-functional, focusing on more than one purpose, preferably including future projections, socio-economic analyses and stakeholder engagement, as these are key aspects of an MSP process. Future DSTs should be multi-functional and integrative in order to assist the future needs of MSP, including future projections, scenario analysis, plan review, monitoring, cost benefit analysis and online participation functions.


The study only reviewed DSTs that had actually been used in past or on-going MSP processes, implying that the results of the research may have different valuation concerning other planning processes. The study suggested that the use of DSTs is currently more the norm for pilot projects rather than actual MSP processes, as these allow for more testing of different approaches to planning.

The research also put forward that the limited use of DSTs could be caused by a lack of demand or awareness of available tools. Therefore, the research suggested further exploration of the demand side, i.e. planners’ valuation of DSTs.


Costs / Funding Source

The research described in the article was conducted with financial support from AquaSpace:

Contact person

Kemal Pinarbasi
AZTI, Marine Research Division

Ibon Galparsoro
AZTI, Marine Research Division