Next Frontier for Regional Planning: The Ocean off Mid-Atlantic States

State and federal agencies, Native American tribes, join together to plan for effective sharing and management of ocean resources

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With the ocean facing significant challenges in the near future, Mid-Atlantic states, federal agencies, and others have banded together to draft a plan to promote more regional planning and coordination in managing the resource.

The first strategy of its kind in the region, the plan has been put together in a cooperative effort among state officials, stakeholders, and federally recognized Native American tribes to inform policies to protect the region’s waters and coast. The Mid-Atlantic Ocean Action Plan involved the states of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The plan recognizes that the region’s ocean, where offshore wind farms are under development, is home to the East Coast’s largest seaport, and countless recreational opportunities, is likely to be the site of numerous conflicts over the next decades.

Those challenges “have the potential to grow in severity as society seeks to accommodate new and expanding ocean uses while simultaneously protecting the health and resilience of a rapidly changing natural system,’’ according to the plan.

Among those factors are the effects of climate change on the region’s marine waters, rising sea levels, and the impact on the already battered coastal environment of extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy, which are likely to occur more frequently.

“This plan represents a new way of governing,’’’ said Alison Chase, a senior policy analyst for the oceans program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Instead of working in silos and sometimes at cross-purposes, states and federal agencies, fisheries managers and tribes are working collectively to help guide ocean conservation and development decisions.’’

The plan argues a regional approach is the best way to deal with ocean management — given the multiple jurisdictions spread among federal an state agencies and tribes.

While the new coalition has no regulatory authority, President Barack Obama has directed federal agencies to incorporate regional plans like the Mid-Atlantic’s into the policies they develop, according to Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, who endorsed the effort.

“If we want to protect the things we value, we have to change the rules of the game,’’ Dillingham said. “There are clearly increasing demands for use of the ocean. Some are potentially harmful to marine life and the environment. All of them need to be managed.’’

The rationale is to develop the good science and inventory of pertinent data to make sound policy decisions to protect the resource. In some cases, the report found that is already happening on the state level.

In New Jersey, for instance, the state did an ecological study in 2010 of birds, sea turtles, and mammals in offshore waters, data that was used to help pinpoint areas for possible lease for offshore wind farms. The study that found the further away from the coast, the less impact there could be on marine life.

“This is the basis for planning,’’ Dillingham said. “What is the right amount of offshore wind and where is the right place for it to go.’’

Similar studies are suggested in the draft plan. For instance, it recommends identifying ecologically rich areas of the Mid-Atlantic ocean to foster more informed decision-making. Along those lines, it urged a study to map shifts in ocean species and habitat.

The plan also recommended more intensive study on a variety of ocean uses, ranging from national security, ocean energy, commercial and recreational fishing, maritime and commercial navigation, and sand management from mining activities.

“We need a strategy that will protect marine life, as well as the traditional uses and clean-water economies on which our coastal communities depend,’’ Dillingham said.

There will be a 60-day comment period through September 6 on the draft plan. It is expected to be adopted this fall by the National Ocean Council.