The United Nations General Assembly in 2006 and 2009 adopted resolutions that call for the identification and protection of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) from significant adverse impacts of bottom fishing. While general criteria have been produced, there are no guidelines or protocols that elaborate on the process from initial identification through to the protection of VMEs. Here, based upon an expert review of existing practices, a 10-step framework is proposed: 1) Comparatively assess potential VME indicator taxa and habitats in a region; 2) determine VME thresholds; 3) consider areas already known for their ecological importance; 4) compile information on the distributions of likely VME taxa and habitats, as well as related environmental data; 5) develop predictive distribution models for VME indicator taxa and habitats; 6) compile known or likely fishing impacts; 7) produce a predicted VME naturalness distribution (areas of low cumulative impacts); 8) identify areas of higher value to user groups; 9) conduct management strategy evaluations to produce trade-off scenarios; 10) review and re-iterate, until spatial management scenarios are developed that fulfil international obligations and regional conservation and management objectives. To date, regional progress has been piecemeal and incremental. The proposed 10-step framework combines these various experiences into a systematic approach.