SeaSketch: A web-based tool for participatory marine spatial planning

Will McClintock
Published: 22 January 2021
Last edited: 22 January 2021
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SeaSketch is a software service for participatory and collaborative mapping. Using simple tools, users may (1) visualize and query maps, (2) contribute knowledge and identify valued areas using map-based surveys, (3) sketch and evaluate prospective zoning scenarios and (4) share and discuss zoning plans in a map-based discussion forum. The platform has been used in many cases to develop comprehensive zoning scenarios that reflect stakeholder values in Marine Spatial Planning (MSP). The tool is currently propriety and requires a purchased license but in January 2022, a new version will be released as free and open source. 


Central America
North America
North Europe
North and Central Asia
South America
South Asia
West and South Europe
Scale of implementation
Coastal forest
Coral reef
Deep sea
Freshwater ecosystems
Marine and coastal ecosystems
Open sea
River, stream
Rocky reef / Rocky shore
Salt marsh
Seamount / Ocean ridge
Coastal and marine spatial management
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Ecosystem services
Fisheries and aquaculture
Food security
Health and human wellbeing
Indigenous people
Local actors
Outreach & communications
Protected area management planning
Science and research
Sustainable livelihoods
Terrestrial spatial planning
Traditional knowledge
Watershed management
World Heritage
Loss of Biodiversity
Ocean warming and acidification
Sea level rise
Volcanic eruption
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Ecosystem loss
Unsustainable harvesting incl. Overfishing
Lack of technical capacity
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor governance and participation
Lack of food security
Aichi targets
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 4: Sustainable production and consumption
Target 6: Sustainable management of aquatic living resources
Target 10: Ecosystems vulnerable to climate change
Target 11: Protected areas
Target 13: Safeguarding genetic diversity
Target 14: Ecosystem services
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 18: Traditional knowledge
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge


Global | United States, Canada, New Zealand, Federated States of Micronesia, Cook Islands, Ecuador, Barbuda, Montserrat, Curaçao, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Reunion, Micronesia, Bermuda, Indonesia


One primary challenge to marine spatial planning is maximizing participation in the planning process by providing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools that may be used in a variety of settings (remotely and in-person) by a variety of users (technical and non-technical). 


Planners, stakeholders and government agency representatives who are directly involved in marine spatial planning.

How do the building blocks interact?

Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) processes are often helped by decision-support tools. Deciding on the tools for critical issues in MSP such as spatial data management and stakeholder engagement is key (BB1 - SeaSketch Software as a Service). Governments need a legal mandate to establish marine spatial plans (BB2 - Government Buy-In for Collaborative Planning), without which plans are unlikely to be adopted.


One begins with collecting the best readily available geospatial information (BB3 - Authoritative Geodata and Map Services). All of these data may be displayed as Data Layers in SeaSketch.  New data may be collected by way of Surveys (BB4 - SeaSketch Surveys to Assess Ocean Use). The results of surveys may show the distribution of activities within the ocean. These maps may be considered the “authoritative” database with which users may begin planning.


The primary planning tool is the “sketch”,  a prospective plan element (BB5 - Sketching and Evaluating Prospective Zones). Sketches may be analyzed to indicate if the plan meets its objectives.  The Forums offer a means by which users may share and discuss prospective zones. 


Successful planning depends on a commitment from government to maximize stakeholder involvement, including goal-setting, generating and evaluating plans, and decision-making. With this in mind, the SeaSketch platform lowers barriers to participation and provides a means by which stakeholders may concretely offer their ideas and opinions, share information and express their values about how ocean space is managed. Zoning plans that reflect these ideas, values and opinions are more likely to gain social acceptance and therefore stand a greater chance of implementation and compliance.


Moreover, if stakeholders are offered the opportunity use SeaSketch hands-on, they will have a better understanding of the information used in planning as well as the structure of the planning process itself. By viewing maps, sketching and evaluating plans, users gain a deeper appreciation for what is meant by “habitats” or “the distribution of fishing effort”.


And, finally, by using the data and tools available in SeaSketch, users have access to a common language within which they may collaborate and communicate with others. A zone that is labelled “marine protected area” or “no-go zone” has a specific meaning that is reflected in the attributes and reports associated with it. As such, stakeholders are clear about what they want (or don’t want) when they share their ideas. 


Will McClintock

SeaSketch was used in the Caribbean island of Barbuda to create a comprehensive marine spatial plan. The Barbuda Council (the island’s governing body), with invited support from the Waitt Institute, navigated complex trade-offs between spatial uses to design and legally codify zoning for their entire marine jurisdiction. After a year of intensive community engagement under this Blue Halo Initiative, regulations were adopted in August 2014 that established zones for sanctuaries, fish net prohibitions, anchoring/mooring, and shipping. Key data used included a habitat map and a heatmap of fishing value. Barbudans designed all zones, with technical support, using SeaSketch. Throughout the process, the Council incorporated input from fishers and other community members, seeking a final zoning design that would minimize negative impacts on livelihoods and earn broad community support. The final zoning plan balances economic, conservation, and cultural uses. It includes thirteen zones and meets the pre-agreed goals of protecting one-third of the waters overall and approximately one-third of each habitat type. The consultation process included seven community consultation meetings, five fisher consultation meetings, and two meetings of a stakeholder committee. The initiative is now in the implementation phase, however Hurricane Irma devastated Barbuda in September 2017, creating substantial challenges for ongoing implementation.


At the beginning of the Blue Halo Initiative, there was some doubt that stakeholders would be able to identify on a map where they fished – an important step that show the distribution of valued fishing areas to be avoided as no-take zones. Indeed, some who had fished around the island had never looked at a navigational map or a detailed map of the coastline. It was quite common for initiative staff and partners to sit for twenty minutes or so with individual stakeholders to look at the maps in SeaSketch and orient them to their fishing areas. In all cases, stakeholders were eventually able to orient themselves and identify the areas where they fished. In most cases, we found that facilitated discussions (e.g., interviews) were the easiest way to engage stakeholders, even those that had personal computers with Internet access. Although SeaSketch is quite easy to use, it may require 10-15 minutes of training and, more importantly, a specific motivation to use the tool in a participatory process.

Contributed by

Will McClintock University of California Santa Barbara, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

Other contributors

University of California Santa Barbara
University of California Santa Barbara