How Political Institutions Influence Marine Spatial Planning

Recently I had the opportunity to explore why some democracies adopt coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) and others do not. I am curious if there are political factors that increase the likelihood of a nation adopting CMSP. Using a quick  quantitative comparative method, I tested if there were institutional factors that inform adoption of this policy tool. The great dataset developed by Arendt Lijphart for his book, Patterns of Democracy provides a number of variables measuring varieties of democracy. In this study, Lijphart explored 36 democracies to understand how different institutions contribute to effectiveness at policy making. He coded many variables around institutional structures that exist in these democracies. Lijphart was interested in the question of which forms of democracy perform better – with his argument that consensus forms being the more successful model.

For my questions I was more intrigued by the idea that these parameters might provide clues on the adoption of certain policies. My initial analysis suggests that there is a link between the level of decentralized power and the adoption of CMSP. In particular, political systems that enable minority interests to participate might increase the adoption of CMSP.

Concepts and Study Design

Before going on, it is important to note that this is an exploratory exercise. The results did not show strong indicators of policy adoption, and significance was hard to come by. That said, this is worth sharing to suggest there is an opportunity for research along these lines. For this study, marine spatial planning was measured by looking at the percentage of marine protected areas in each nation’s territorial seas. It is worth arguing that marine protected areas are not the only measure of CMSP. Other regulatory tools such as zoning, fisheries and recreation regulation, and resource access laws are also options. But to operationalize this research, MPA’s provide a relatively clear measurement. Not all MPA’s are created equally, some allow more extractive uses. This is a compromise measure – and an opportunity for more research.

Lijphart’s analysis  distributed democracies across of continuum from unitary to decentralized forms of government. This measures the degree to which unified control was present for any given government. On the other side of the spectrum from the unitary model is the federalism type government with decentralized power. Plotting the percent of MPA area against this continuum revealed an interesting pattern. While all unitary type governments have low total areas of MPA, federal forms show more variation. The figure below plots this relationship. Not a strong association – but enough to explore further. (The codes for the various nations are listed at the end of this post.)

Forms of Democracy and Marine Spatial Planning

FedUnitaryDim in this figure measures the degree of federalism (positive numbers) or the degree of unitary (negative numbers) along the x axis. The y axis presents a normalized measurement of area protected in each nation’s ocean area. The data for the percent protected area comes from the World Database on Protected Areas. The Germany, the United States, and Australia are on the decentralized end of the continuum and also have sizable MPA areas.

In addition to these political dimensions, I also tested models using variables on the dependence of the nation on ocean resources, national economic development, and participation in international agreements on ocean management. These did not show significant relationships.

Federalism and Marine Spatial Planning

How and why does federalism tie to CMSP? There is some correlation here – a multivariate regression model using Lijphart’s parameters shows a significant relationship with three key variables: an independent federal bank, bicameral strength and pluralism. The independence of a federal bank is an interesting finding, and one I am not sure how to interpret. My current thinking is this represents an acceptance of independent regulatory bodies or expert groups. It is possible this suggests a desire to try and create barriers between the everyday politics of government and the management of state resources.

Variables Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Central Bank Independence 48.757*** 40.626*** 40.654***
Bicameral Strength 2.768** 3.043***
Pluralism -2.33**
Adjusted R-Squared 0.409 0.516 .578
*** p value <0.01** p value <0.05

Table 1: Three Models on CMSP Adoption and Measures of Federalism (Stepwise Regression Outputs)

The bicameral strength and pluralism measures both indicate increased minority roles. Lijphart’s study was contrasting Westminster type governments with more consensus driven ones. In parliamentary systems in the Westminster systems, the ruling party takes all control – minority interests struggle to be heard. In consensus systems, minority interests are promoted to have a veto role, or other ways to participate. Pluralism in Lijphart’s study is a measure of individualistic type behavior by groups – as opposed to a more compromise driven model of groups. These two measures capture how different groups compete or compromise for policy outcomes – and the connection here suggests MPA’s might be a local interest only expressed in decentralized power structures.

Yaquina Bay Trawl

Politics, Economics and Interests

Another series of questions this research does not address center on the competition for economic access to the resources protected by MPA’s. Presumably we could expect international economic interests participating in fisheries or natural resource extraction to oppose national MPA initiatives. However, as I mentioned briefly above, models using economic extraction were not statistically significant – suggesting the economic entanglement with CMSP policy is more complex. We know that some CSMP efforts try to decentralize to expand economic control of the ocean, such as in Chile. In other settings, local traditions can also interact complexly with these forces.

In his review of institutional change and marine fisheries, Holm explored Norwegian traditions against central authority. These traditions, along with political and cultural divisions between the rural fishing communities and the urban fish merchants are key to understanding how fishery policy conflicts rose and ended an old fishing institution. The local community management regime was ended in the 1980’s as liberalization of markets were pushed along side European common market integration. Here the larger international field mixed with a change at the national level to overpower the traditional local organizational structures.

These examples suggest finer scale concepts are required to understand the rise of MPA’s in some nations, but not others. The macro institutional structures (political systems, parties, and rules) make a difference. There are others that are harder to include in this model. The liberalization of common pool resources plays a role, but one not captured by these variables. Ideological and organizational forces play a role as well – cultural and historic patterns need equal or more weight in the analysis. CMSP is a practice being discussed globally, and through networks of practitioners, biodiversity international non-governmental organizations, and governments. There are other ways to explore these forces, whether as iso-morphism in organizational development, as boundary objects for political debates, or as a new rationality trying to order the oceans for economic development. These all suggest expanding research to explore the roles of traditional user groups, national ethics about management, and international trends in liberalizing public goods for market access.


Appendix: Country Codes

Country Code

Percent Marine Area Protected

Australia AUL


Bahamas BAH


Barbados BAR


Belgium BEL


Canada CAN


Columbia COL


Costa Rica CR


Denmark DEN


Finland FIN


France FRA


Germany GER


Greece GRE


Iceland ICE


India IND


Ireland IRE


Israel ISR


Italy ITA


Jamaica JAM


Japan JPN


Malta MAL


Mauritius MAU


Netherlands NET


New Zealand NZ


Norway NOR


Papua New Guinea PNG


Portugal POR


Spain SPA


Sweden SWE


Trinidad and Tobago TRI


United Kingdom UK


United States US


Venezuela VEN


2 comments… add one
  • Interesting, but I’m curious how this relates to literature and/or data on MPA or CMSP effectiveness either in terms of stated objectives or some other measure such as biodiversity or fisheries yields … that would be a fun angle to track down

    • Paul Manson Link Reply Paul Manson

      That would be a good question to chase down. I am admittedly more focused on policy outcomes versus outcomes of policies in this piece. (And even there the policy outcomes are relatively coarsely defined.)

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