Effective zoning as a key spatial planning/management tool

Jon C. Day
Published: 26 July 2016
Last edited: 12 April 2018
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This solution addresses how effective zoning has become a cornerstone for managing the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park. It also addresses some of the challenges for managers to ensure zones are effectively developed whilst also assisting effective on-going implementation of successful zoning.


Scale of implementation
Coral reef
Deep sea
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Coastal and marine spatial management
Protected area governance
Sustainable fisheries and aquaculture
World Heritage
Aichi targets
Target 11: Protected areas
Target 18: Traditional knowledge


Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia


Zoning is a well-recognized part of marine spatial planning (MSP) that can help to protect biodiversity and separate conflicting activities. However, many issues facing MPAs cannot be effectively addressed by zoning alone (e.g. climate change, water quality, coastal developments), requiring other management tools. Where zoning is applied, it must be carefully developed and implemented to be effective.


MPA managers and the users who help determine zones but then must also comply with them.

How do the building blocks interact?

These building blocks outline how a spectrum of zones in the GBR has provided an effective spatial planning/management framework, helping to protect biodiversity and separating conflicting activities. A key building block is the multiple-use zoning approach outlined in BB1 which allows a range of activities to occur in each zone. The importance of zone objectives, and why it is important to zone by objective rather than by activity, is discussed in BB2. When zone boundaries are being developed, the importance of coordinate-based zoning, especially in offshore areas, is outlined in BB3. Further aspects for developing an effective zoning network are also discussed: the biophysical and social-economic planning principles used in the GBR (BB4); the use and limitations of decision-support systems/tools (BB5); and the importance of working with the best available scientific knowledge/information (BB6). Effective marine conservation, however, requires more than just a comprehensive zoning network, especially given the range of pressures facing MPAs today. Many pressures, such as climate change, declining water quality and loss of coastal habitats, originate outside the marine realm and are not directly ameliorated by ocean zoning.


The most significant impact of the current zoning is the increased protection of representative examples of all 70 ‘bioregions’ (or broad habitat types) across the entire GBR. The no-take zones (NTZ) cover 33% of the Marine Park, comprising the world's largest systematic network of NTZ’s. The NTZs were chosen in a way which maximises the protection of biodiversity while minimising the impacts on other users, including fishers. The current Zoning Plan has eight zone types which allow all reasonable uses to occur in the multiple-use park whilst separating conflicting activities into different zones. The Habitat Protection Zone protects the benthic habitat in a further 33% of the Park and prohibits bottom-trawling. A further positive impact is the complementary zoning for adjacent State waters under Queensland jurisdiction; this ‘mirrors’ the adjoining federal zoning and means virtually all State and Federal waters from high water mark out to a maximum distance of 250 km offshore have virtually identical laws. This is globally significant, and provides for more effective marine conservation and public understanding of the entire area as the regulatory provisions are the same irrespective of which jurisdiction applies.


A statutory Zoning Plan is one of the key management tools used in the GBR today; it is a critical component to help comprehensively manage the range of multiple-uses that occur. Over the years zoning has been progressively applied to different sections of the GBR. It was not until 13 years after the GBR legislation was initially proclaimed (which defined the outer boundary of the Park), that the majority of the Park was subsequently zoned. Over the years, the zoning has been modified and updated. Early zoning plans within the Marine Park emphasized the protection of coral reefs but today zoning protects a wide range of marine habitats. The current zoning network came into effect in July 2004 and covers almost the entire GBR (e.g. port areas are not included). It provides high levels of protection for key areas (in 'no-take' zones, and very small 'no-go' zones) totalling 33.3% (= 115,500 km2) of the Marine Park while allowing a wide range of commercial and recreational activities, some of which are also managed with permits, to occur in other zones across the GBR. As well as the statutory Zoning Plan, a range of other spatial and temporal management tools are used to ensure the conservation and management of the GBR. Effective marine conservation requires more than just a comprehensive MSP framework within the marine realm, especially given the range of pressures facing MPAs today (e.g. climate change, declining water quality, loss of coastal habitats, increasing coastal development). Many of these pressures originate outside the marine realm and are not directly ameliorated by ocean zoning or MSP. Collectively this range of management tools, including the multiple-use zoning network, makes up the comprehensive MSP and ecosystem-based management (EBM) approaches. The inter-relationships between zoning, MSP and EBM are best summarized as follows: - Zoning is normally only a two-dimensional layer (although it can be deemed to have effect over a three-dimensional space) and is usually confined to only the marine parts of an MPA. - MSP may be multi-dimensional (i.e. multiple layers of which zoning may be one layer) but it is still confined only to the marine parts of an MPA. - A comprehensive EBM approach encourages ‘thinking outside the square’ and can encompass three dimensional or multi-layered management and planning within both the terrestrial and the marine realms, which are all relevant for effective marine conservation.

Contributed by

Jon C. Day


ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University