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Sustainability at sea: Marine special planning, by Adena Leibman

Posted by: | November 26, 2012 Comments Off on Sustainability at sea: Marine special planning, by Adena Leibman |

Throughout history, societies have developed along our oceans’ coastlines, flourishing from its seemingly endless bounties of fresh food and navigational access to distant lands. The influence of the oceans in development of human societies was so great, that it was often reflected in the religions and spiritual beliefs of the people themselves, such as the Hawaiian god of Kanaloa or the Roman god Neptune.

Though the oceans may no longer take on such a mythical connotation in today’s societies, they are no less important. As of 2003, over half the U.S. population called the coast home, even though coastal areas only cover about 17% of U.S. land. Coastal development, commercial and recreational fisheries, oil and gas extraction, aquaculture, shipping, and offshore wind electricity generation are all booming (and frequently competing) interests that are mounting pressures on both the limited space and resources that define our world’s oceans. But how does one balance and manage these multiple uses to ensure a sustainable future for our coastal resources?

The answer is nothing new. Ancient Hawaiians understood the need to manage their resources; records indicate that they implemented many strategies that we now consider cornerstones of ocean management, such as marine protected areas and limited fishing quotas. But yet this idea of designated multiple-use zoning to manage ocean resources still seems novel in some circles. We have been zoning and managing our land uses for nearly a century, but the transition to bringing this strategy to the oceans is still in development.

This approach is often referred to as “marine spatial planning.” In its most basic sense, marine spatial planning serves as a tool to help identify and balance the many uses and competing demands on ocean and coastal areas and resources. Using scientific research and stakeholder input, governing bodies identify specific areas of their coastal zones that are best suited for specific needs, such as navigation, placement of offshore facilities, and recreational use. Instead of fishermen, energy developers, and recreational boaters all competing for a stake in the same plot of the coastal zone (which may also happen to be home to a threatened species or cover part of a whale’s migratory path), these uses are prioritized in a manner to ensure the resources of that region are not over-exploited or inadvertently and irrevocably damaged by a competing use. Many rounds of data collection, public input, and policy debates go into the final product which can then be translated into regulations, permits, and other enforceable mechanisms.

On a national scale, the United States is only in its earliest stages. On June 12, 2009, President Obama sent a memorandum to the heads of Executive Departments and Agencies calling for a national policy on the current and future development of the nation’s coasts and oceans. The memorandum called for the formation of an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (IOPTF) that would develop recommendations for a national policy, as well as an implementation strategy for the objectives that it identified. The IOPTF was also required to promulgate a framework for a national coastal and marine planning scheme.

The following year, President Obama issued Executive Order 13,547 – Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes. In the Order, the President adopted the final recommendations of the IOPTF, establishing a national policy that identified ten key objectives and defined “coastal and marine spatial planning” for the national stage as “a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes areas.” The recommendations also established the National Ocean Council (NOC), an interagency council co-chaired by the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The Council was charged with implementing national marine spatial planning initiatives as well as continually reviewing its policies, progress, and structure to ensure the most efficient and productive development of the coastal resources as possible.

The NOC has since released a draft implementation plan that calls for ecosystem-based management principles and collaboration to form the cornerstones of future marine spatial planning initiatives. The NOC is still receiving comments on the plan and seeking input from critical stakeholders, such as members of the fishing and shipping industries.

While the final implementation of a national marine spatial plan may still be some time away, certain states have taken the charge to independently develop their own coastal management plans. Rhode Island and Massachusetts are often touted as among the first and most comprehensive of state initiatives. Massachusetts was the first state to pass legislation specifically calling for the development of an ocean management plan. Rhode Island relied upon existing state authority and worked closely with the federal government and its neighboring states to develop its Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or Ocean SAMP. The Ocean SAMP covers approximately 1,500 square miles of ocean, nearly 50% larger than the state’s actual land mass. Other states and regions, such as New Jersey, California, and Oregon are also at varying degrees of marine spatial plan development. Although the mechanisms and methodologies used by each state to advance and implement their respective plans vary, all are similarly focused on providing sound guidance and management strategies that will help ensure continued sustainable use of coastal resources.

Though a tremendous asset in the quest for sustainable ocean development, marine spatial planning is not a savior to all of the afflictions that plague our oceans. Alone, it will not slow ocean acidification, or end overfishing, or preserve our estuaries, or prevent invasive species from dominating coral reef landscapes. Our oceans must continue to be looked at from a multi-faceted approach, one that incorporates public education, political outreach, stakeholder involvement, ecosystem-based conservation management, and most importantly, intensive research. There is an often quoted factoid in the marine community that we know significantly more about the moon than we do about the ocean waters and seafloor that make up more than 75% of our planet. So much of our ocean remains to be discovered, but we may lose the opportunities to know it before the damages incurred deteriorate it beyond contemporary recognition.

But, the future is not pre-determined. There is still hope but action must begin now. The United States, and other nations, must crucially analyze the ocean uses occurring off of their coasts, identify best practices, and work to secure a balance between sustainable development and conservation to ensure that the wonder and bounties of our oceans will continue for generations to come. Rachel Carson perhaps said it best when she said:

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist: the threat is rather to life itself.

We depend on the oceans for myriad resources and pleasures, and it is up to us to help secure its healthy future. And one of the first steps should be ensuring each coastal region has a comprehensive marine spatial plan in place to identify, coordinate, and understand its coastal resources and uses. Through increased knowledge and planning comes better management and hopefully, in the end, better protections for our marine future.

under: Natural Resources

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