The marine environment plays an essential role in human society, from valuable economic benefits such as food and jobs to important social benefits such as sport and recreation.

Our high demands on natural resources, such as fish and oil, and our ever increasing range of activities at sea have placed huge pressure on the marine environment. The result has been a notable decline in marine ecosystem health and the poor status of Scotland’s seas (as identified in Scotland’s Marine Atlas) highlights an urgent need for effective, environmentally-focused management of human activities.

What is marine planning?

Marine planning is a valuable tool that enables managers to assess the many different uses and values of the marine environment and appropriately guide the distribution of future human activities and developments. Done correctly, marine planning can provide a clear and easily accessible method of sustainable management that encourages stakeholder involvement, allowing representatives from large industries, conservation groups and local community groups to be included in the decision-making process.

A valuable advancement in marine planning is the ability to simultaneously map and analyse data on human activities (e.g. shipping), the physical environment (e.g. temperature), and marine species and communities (e.g. seal population distribution). The integration of spatialdata into the planning process, through the use of Geographical Information Systems, allows managers to visualise more accurately the uses of the marine environment, identify potentially conflicting activities, identify areas in poor health, and monitor animal and environmental data trends over long periods of time. Moreover, the availability of spatial data has allowed marine planners to make better-informed, evidence-based decisions on how to manage marine activities.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust acts as a consultant for marine planning applications in Scotland, either individually or as part of Scottish Environment LINK, with the ultimate aim of influencing planning decisions and promoting the following principles:

  • An ecosystems approach to marine planning that aims to improve the health of Scotland’s seas;
  • A transparent and fully inclusive process for developing marine plans, including conservation interests;
  • Cross-border collaboration (e.g. between Scottish regions and across the UK);
  • Established partnerships that ensure integration of terrestrial and marine planning systems;
  • Sustained financial support for the development, monitoring, and reviewing of marine plans;
  • Coordinated long-term monitoring of the marine environment and improved access to marine data to support marine planning decisions.

Why we need to manage our marine environment

Human activity at sea and on land puts pressure on the marine environment and has led to a decline in marine and coastal ecosystem health on a global scale. Unregulated and ill-informed exploitation of marine resources, a lack of control over marine activity, and pollution has led to substantial habitat loss and an unprecedented decline in marine populations. This decline in marine environmental health can be traced back to many factors, but the principle contributors are:

Coastal development

Humans increase pressure on the marine environment through urban development, transportation, tourism, and recreational activities. The development and increased use of our coastlines has contributed greatly to the degradation of the marine environment, which includes habitat loss (e.g. seagrass beds), increased surfacewater and pollution run-off, and alterations to the coast’s physical characteristics (e.g. seawalls).


Human activities on land, in fresh water systems (e.g. rivers), and at sea have all contributed to marine pollution. Rivers, surface runoff, and sewage outflows all connect human activity on land with the marine environment, often resulting in the sea becoming a dumping ground for waste.


Rising global food demands and advancements in fishing technology (e.g. sonar) have placed large pressure on fish stocks. Jointly, these two factors have led to unsustainable levels of fishing, which has resulted in massive fish stock decline and, in some cases, a collapse of certain fish stocks.

Non-native species

Human activities, such as commercial shipping, have led to the unintentional movement of marine organisms around the globe to regions outside of their native range and is a concern for marine conservation. Non-native marine species can impact native communities (e.g. predation and competition with native species) and also cause significant economic damage to marine industries through biofouling (marine organisms growing on available surfaces).

Climate change and ocean acidification

Increased levels of atmospheric CO2 caused by humans has led to ocean acidification and climate change, which has been linked to increasing sea surface temperatures, rising water levels, and more frequent storm events. Immediate impacts, such as coral bleaching events, highlight the severe effect these atmospheric changes can have on marine ecosystems. Potential ecological impacts include changes in species distribution in response to temperature changes (e.g. pole-ward movement of species to cooler waters), changes in ecosystem composition, and species extinctions.

The direct impact of human activities on marine life is well documented, but the less obvious secondary impacts on marine ecosystem services that support human society are not yet fully understood. Human activities that damage essential natural capital assets and cause decline in ecosystem service benefits, such as food provision and coastal protection, can cause societal and economic impacts. It should, therefore, be in the interests of all members of society, whether directly or indirectly linked to the sea, to value, protect, and improve the health of the marine environment.

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