The Issue

Developing and Testing Marine Zoning Practices

An increasing number of human activities are placing intense and often conflicting demands on coastal and marine waters worldwide. Many of these activities are likely to intensify in the next few decades. Ocean habitats are threatened, jeopardizing the ecosystem services that they provide, such as food production, storm buffering, recreation opportunities, and biodiversity protection.

Recognizing the need to accommodate multiple uses and to manage cumulative impacts on the ocean, many policy makers, managers, scientists, and stakeholders around the world are seeking integrated, holistic approaches to ocean and coastal management. Marine spatial planning has emerged as an approach with the potential to integrate and improve marine management.

Marine spatial planning (MSP) refers to an extensive planning process required for management of a marine area to accommodate multiple activities and objectives. MSP is also known as coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP). MSP is much like land-use planning except that it focuses on marine resources. One possible outcome of MSP is a marine zoning plan, which allocates areas of the ocean for different human uses.


St. Kitts and Nevis are volcanic in origin and have large central peaks covered in tropical rainforest. The surrounding flatter terrain is where the majority of people reside on both islands. Photo © Steven R. Schill/TNC

Marine zoning is currently being pursued on a range of spatial scales. These efforts range from large, integrated sea-use management programs, such as those in the China Sea and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, to smaller-scale projects that essentially apply zoning to networks of marine protected areas, such as in St. Lucia’s Soufrière Bay and the Bird’s Head in Indonesia.

Strong Pressures in the Eastern Caribbean

The case for multi-objective marine zoning is particularly strong in the Caribbean. This region has been identified as one of the world’s top five hot spots for biodiversity, based primarily on the high number of globally important endemic species. In addition, many people in this densely populated region inhabit coastal zones and are heavily dependent on marine resources for their livelihoods. However, the Eastern Caribbean is among the five regions worldwide showing the highest cumulative human impact on marine ecosystems. Poorly planned coastal development, land-based pollution sources, over-exploitation of fisheries resources, and global climate change are the primary threats to the biological diversity and ecosystem services of the region’s coral reefs, wetlands, mangroves, beaches, seagrass beds, and other coastal marine habitats.

Focus on St. Kitts and Nevis

Fishing is an important part of the culture and economy of St. Kitts and Nevis. Photo © Shawn W. Margles/TNC

Fishing is an important part of the culture and economy of St. Kitts and Nevis. Photo © Shawn W. Margles/TNC

This project was conceived and funded as a pilot project that would initiate a marine spatial planning process for a small island nation in the Eastern Caribbean through the development of a draft marine zoning design. The project team considered a number of island nations in the Eastern Caribbean and chose St. Kitts and Nevis as the project site based on selection criteria:

  • An existing or potential conflict between users/uses had been clearly identified and was deemed workable.
  • The government was aware of marine zoning as a useful management approach and was interested in applying it in their country.
  • The project team had a good history of working with the government.
  • Relevant regional inter-governmental bodies were interested in supporting zoning there.
  • Potential existed for stakeholder engagement—both relationships and appropriate venues.
  • Potential policy instruments for implementation had been identified.
  • Spatial information representing multiple uses existed.
  • A rapid assessment of available data had been completed.
  • Potential in-country sources of information had been identified, and relationships existed with appropriate individuals and agencies to help with data transfer.
  • Relationships already existed with stakeholder groups able to provide expert knowledge, and promising conditions existed for establishing new relationships.

Ecology and Threats

Despite its small area, St. Kitts and Nevis boasts a representative cross-section of Caribbean marine life, including endangered corals, marine mammals, fish species, and sea turtles. Marine fishes number approximately 460 species, including 126 species that are threatened or endangered. Coastal fisheries have declined sharply in recent years, and storms and anchoring have heavily damaged the reefs. Anecdotally, fishers have reported smaller catches of conch, lobster, and large pelagic and demersal fishes. Major threats to the marine ecology of the islands include coastal development, unsustainable fisheries practices, land-based sources of pollution, rising ocean temperatures, and the increasing intensity of hurricanes and other storm events.

Intensive Ocean Uses

People use the coastal waters around St. Kitts and Nevis for a wide range of activities. Tourism is presently the major economic driver, and stretches of the coast are dominated by coastal tourism development, private yachts, cruise ships, and associated water activities. Additionally, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, commercial and artisanal fisheries form a significant part of the local economy. Ferries, cruise ships, personal recreation vessels, and large industry vessels provide transportation among the islands. The result is a congested marine environment with mounting conflicts.