A Blueprint For America's Coasts?

By Nicole Palya Wood

"Marine spatial planning" will establish ocean-usage guidelines similar to land-use policies developed after World War II, and still in use today. Will they change the future of boating?

Map of the Northeastern coastlineWill marine spatial planning change how the 95,000 miles of U.S. coastal waters are managed in the future? (Photo: Belowtheboat.com)

A father and his young son arrive at the local boat ramp to launch their Flying Scot, moving the boy one step closer to earning his Boy Scout sailing merit badge. Across the cove, diesel engines hum as a commercial fisherman slips the last line and swings his trawler's bow toward the inlet. In the open water beyond, an engineer in a work skiff peers through the saltwater haze at the gauges on a wind-monitoring buoy, while in a small laboratory near the beach, the ping of a GPS locator beacon rouses a marine biologist, telling her a whale has returned to the harbor. It's 0600 someplace on Cape Cod, but the same scene, or one like it, happens many times over, every day, along 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline.

Meanwhile, new commercial activities — offshore wind farms, tidal power generators, floating fish farms, and ever-bigger container vessels and giant cruise ships — are lining up to stake claims in coastal waters. With colliding uses come opportunities, but also conflicts.

In Washington, D.C., planning is underway to balance these converging ocean uses. That planning may change how U.S. coastal waters are managed, and how boaters and others might be called upon to share their home waters in the future. On April 16, the White House released the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. That plan, more than three years in the making, with roots well over a decade deep, directs 27 federal agencies to work more closely as they implement and enforce the more than 100 ocean-related laws on the books, and streamline federal decisions about coastal and ocean waters. The plan sets in place nine "priority objectives," ranging from implementing better protection for coastal water quality, to improving data collection and mapping for decision-making, to anticipating changing conditions in the warming Arctic. Chief among those objectives, from the recreational boating perspective, is a relatively new concept called marine spatial planning.

While the stated goal of protecting and better managing the nation's coastal and marine resources is at the heart of the National Ocean Policy, another important goal is to avoid potential conflicts among competing uses of coastal waters. Marine spatial planning is the key to that conundrum, advocates claim, and it's a process that could be critical to boating and boater access on the water.

The National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan defines nine coastal regions of the United States (the Great Lakes are a single "coastal" region), and supports "voluntary regional marine planning based on regional and local priorities." Translation? There is no mandate for regions to participate. The Northeast region leads the nation in applying marine spatial planning principles to managing coastal waters, but elsewhere progress varies greatly (see sidebar). The Mid-Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific Island regions have established marine-planning bodies. Alaska, considered a single region, has opted out of the process altogether. According to Deerin Babb-Brott, White House director of the National Ocean Council Office, the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and West Coast states have formal "ocean partnerships" that engage in a range of common environmental issues such as ocean acidification and sea-level rise, but haven't yet adopted the marine spatial planning concepts as envisioned in the National Ocean Plan.

Map of ocean uses in California

Planning for the future of America's marine areas is not a new concept, and parts of the current policy grew out of recommendations put forward by two national panels, the Pew Oceans Commission in 2003, and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which produced "An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century." In 2010, President Obama issued an executive order that began a new round of ocean policy-making at the federal level. The earliest drafts of the National Ocean Policy focused primarily on commercial interests, barely mentioning recreational boating and sportfishing.

Babb-Brott is from Massachusetts, where he led development of the first state ocean plan in the nation. He took over the National Ocean Council Office in March 2012, just after it had released that first ocean policy draft plan for public comment. The council, he says, "got literally thousands of comments on the plan" and the staff spent that summer and fall reviewing them. Many of the comments came from recreational angler and boating organizations such as BoatUS, which noted that the plan barely acknowledged these time-honored pastimes.

"We very definitely heard from the boating and fishing community that this is a constituency that's very important, both economically and culturally," he says. "Just as in Massachusetts, boating and fishing are part of people's lives across the country, and we heard very clearly about the importance of access on the water." As a result, he says, his staff recast the National Ocean Policy Plan to reflect that importance and "explicitly include" boating and sportfishing. In addition, the final Implementation Plan specifies that regional stakeholders will determine the scope, scale, and content of marine planning and that planning bodies will be established only in regions that want them.

"The new recognition of boating in the final national plan is encouraging, and demonstrates how important it is for all of us to be involved," says BoatUS President Margaret Podlich. "At BoatUS, we'll remain active in monitoring the development of marine-spatial-planning projects at the regional level, and we'll let our members know when there are opportunities for boaters to participate. During these early planning stages, the end user who is absent from the table could be the group who eventually becomes regulated off the water." 

Nicole Palya Wood is on the BoatUS Government Affairs team. Ryck Lydecker contributed to this report.

— Published: August/September 2013

Tools To Keep Working Waterfronts Strong

Marine spatial planning decisions made at the regional level may very likely affect recreational-boater access on our coastal waters in the near future. But policy decisions being made at the water's edge can and do affect boaters' access to the water right now. No place is more relevant these days than the "working waterfront" where marinas, boatyards, chandleries, engine and electronics repair shops, and fishing docks provide the products and services that recreational boaters depend upon.

But pressure to convert valuable marine infrastructure to non-water-dependent uses, such as residences, offices, and even sports stadiums, is constant, according to the authors of the recently released "Sustainable Working Waterfronts Toolkit." This web-based portal offers community planners, elected officials, and small-business owners research findings on the economic value of waterfronts. But it also contains information about the historic and current uses of waterfront space, and identifies legal, policy, and financing tools that can be used to preserve, enhance, and protect waterfronts at local and regional levels — such as zoning and design standards, financing and tax approaches, research and mapping, conservation and restoration.


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