Ocean Planning in New England Gets Interesting

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By Robin Just, Conservation Law Foundation, rjust [at] clf.org

Shark! OK – not until the third paragraph, but I want you to stay with me.* The second meeting of our first-in-the-nation coastal and ocean Regional Planning Body is happening in a couple of weeks, and the goal is to set some goals for regional ocean planning. This may sound like a wonky, best-left-to-professionals sort of affair, but we beg to differ. Bear with me, and maybe I can convince you that this is worth paying attention to.

As established by the National Ocean Policy, the Regional Planning Body (RPB) consists of representatives from federal and state agencies, regional tribes, the New England Fishery Management Council, and an ex officio member from Canada. The RPB was brought together to design the process for the first regional ocean plan to be developed in the United States. The kickoff meeting was last November, and was cause for some optimism.

You might not be convinced so far, that this is excellent and interesting – but when you think about the practical implications of this, the story becomes compelling. We New Englanders use our coastal and ocean resources in so many ways: commercial and recreational fishing, boating, surfing, shipping, and offshore renewable energy development are just a few. As these uses grow, we have to think about how to take advantages of all the ocean has to offer by way of food, recreation, transportation and energy, while also protecting the bounty of ocean wildlife and habitat in our waters. Special places like Cashes Ledge, home to everything from pteropods to endangered North Atlantic right whales and great white sharks, or the charmingly toothy Atlantic wolffish and our iconic Maine lobsters. We have to plan for a rapidly changing ocean – as ocean temperatures increase, sea level rises and powerful storms become the new normal, and our ocean water becomes more and more acidic with each year that passes. There is a lot at stake.

Currently, we manage all this through more than 20 federal agencies, administered through a web of more than 140 different and often conflicting laws and regulations. We have complicated challenges already, management issues with seals, sharks, and fishing, vessel strike problems with whales and ships, land-based pollution closing our beaches, fish being blocked from spawning by inland dams, and houses falling into the ocean after winter storms.

These are complicated problems without easy answers, and they need to be addressed in a way that everyone involved – every person or group who has a stake in the outcome – has a meaningful role in the planning process, every step of the way.

This is why CLF is so heavily involved in our regional ocean planning, and why we will keep showing up at meetings (like the one in two weeks in Rhode Island), making public comments, talking to regulators, ocean users, other environmental advocates, and industry representatives, to help keep us on track towards a science-based, open and transparent process that is driven by the participants. As our new Ocean Planning Outreach Manager, Jennifer Felt, says, “It’s not enough to just have stakeholders involved, but their involvement needs to mean something.”

We want nothing less. We also want a planning process that:

We have confidence that we can get there, but we have a lot of work to do. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

I hope I’ve convinced you that ocean planning is not only important, but worth supporting and paying attention to. If I didn’t, then I’ll have to up my shark game next time. Don’t think I can’t do it.

* Some of my colleagues have discovered that if they randomly insert “shark” in emails to me I pay way more attention to what they’re saying. I’m hoping that strategy might work here.

Robin Just works with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) to build awareness of regional ocean planning in New England by forming partnerships with other ocean users, reaching out to ocean researchers, media outlets, and advocacy groups, and other stakeholders, and by writing blogs and other outreach material to promote CLF’s regional ocean planning mission. Robin is a stakeholder in her own right - as an avid surfer of New England’s waves.