Ocean Currents

Nation’s First Regional Ocean Plans


Ocean Conservancy congratulates the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic for finalizing the first regional ocean plans in the nation. From Virginia to Maine, state and regional ocean users, decision-makers, tribes and the fisheries management councils came together to plan for the future of the ocean in a coordinated way. These plans are the culmination of years of work, bringing both regions towards a more holistic, science-based and stakeholder informed ocean management process that will ensure the ocean economy remains strong while ocean ecosystems remain healthy.

These plans are full of incredible information, detailed coordination objectives and future goals for the states and regions. We’ve provided a quick refresher on the basic ingredients of an ocean plan that you can read before diving into exactly what the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast plans say.

A tool for coordination, reducing conflict and finding balance

Unique ecosystems, marine mammals and fish species are found off the Atlantic coast. This region is also home to some of the most rapidly-shifting ocean conditions in the world. Our ocean is one of the major drivers of the U.S. economy and is a very busy place as a result. Both the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic contribute significantly to the local, national and international economy, through robust and historic ocean uses like commercial and recreational fishing, recreation and tourism, shipping, maritime trades and more. Both regions are also leading the nation in offshore renewable energy, thus contributing to the new clean energy economy.

We work and live in a blue economy; yet, how do we balance all these uses in a smart and effective way?

The solution to this is quite simple—good data and better coordination. That is where the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic ocean plans come in.

The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Ocean Plans

Both the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic ocean plans take data and information on human uses coupled with cutting-edge ecological data to help managers have a better perspective of all the ocean uses and needs offshore. A key element of both ocean plans is a series of non-regulatory commitments from federal and state agencies, tribes and the fishery management councils to use the data, coordinate more effectively and talk to people who use the ocean earlier in the decision-making process. This collaborative process takes us from the theoretical foundations of ecosystem-based management to real world application, revolutionizing ocean management along the way.

Each ocean plan is developed in a way that reflects the needs, management issues and future trends relevant to the region. Overarching principles of both plans include:

  • Science-Based Approach: The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic ocean data portals are a critical component of these plans, incorporating multiple data sources in one central location. The planning process was one of the first comprehensive attempts to collect, analyze and synthesize information, including:
    • Revolutionary ecological data characterizing populations of marine fish, sea turtles, whales and seabirds with data ranging from seasonal trends of marine species to important whale migration routes.
    • 150 marine life species characterized from scientific, peer-reviewed data.
    • 10 ocean use sectors reflected in the plan including commercial and recreational fishing, ports and maritime, recreational boating, surfers, as well as undersea cable and offshore energy developers.
  • A Unique Discussion Forum: Both ocean plans allow relevant governmental, non-governmental, stakeholders and the public to coordinate among themselves and to involve ocean user groups early in the decision-making process, coming together to address difficult issues. The coordination commitments by managers to have early dialogues and gather information with those who use the ocean is invaluable and a huge step toward making better, more informed decisions.

Diving Deeper: Understanding Key Components of the Ocean Plans

The Northeast Regional Ocean Plan is over a decade in the making with the formal planning process beginning in 2012. The Mid-Atlantic Ocean Action Plan’s formal planning process began in 2013 using a similar approach as the Northeast ocean plan, with some regionally-relevant commitments like actions to address ocean acidification and marine debris.

To illustrate the types of data, information and commitments made in both of the newly approved ocean plans, I would like to use the Northeast Ocean Plan as a model.

The Northeast Ocean Plan contains five chapters, that build from a general description of the ocean ecosystem and history of ocean management in the region, to specific descriptions of ten ocean use sectors along with action items federal and state agencies, tribes and the fishery management council have agreed to.

Both plans address similar management issues ranging from economic to environmental. For example, the Northeast ocean plan characterizes the following ten management areas:

  • Marine Life and Habitat
  • Cultural Resources
  • Marine Transportation
  • National Security
  • Commercial and Recreational Fishing
  • Recreation
  • Energy and Infrastructure
  • Aquaculture
  • Offshore Sand Resources
  • Restoration

I will use examples from the “Marine Life and Habitat” and “Commercial and Recreational Fishing” sub-chapters to highlight some of the details contained in the plan.

Exploring the ocean plan: Marine Life and Habitat

An unprecedented amount of peer-reviewed data to characterize the distribution and abundance of marine life and habitat was collected and synthesized as part of the Northeast Ocean Plan. The plan, using information found on the data portal, begins defining more complex measures of ecosystems such as biodiversity and species richness. Over 80 regional scientists and managers informed data on 29 marine mammal, 40 bird and 82 fish species. Physical habitats such as oceanographic properties and sediment type coupled with biological habitats such as eelgrass, shellfish beds and primary producers essential to the marine food web are also found within the data portal and referenced within the plan.

Decision-makers made commitments in the plan to reference this extensive ecosystem data to inform management decisions, meaning as a potential project is proposed offshore, marine life and habitat are more fully considered. This approach ensures smarter, more informed conservation decisions that are in balance with the economy. In the end, management at a regional scale means science-based conservation gains and economic decisions are made that result in better outcomes overall.

Exploring the ocean plan: Commercial fishing

The plan characterizes the current economy of commercial fisheries in the Northeast and highlights the benefits it brings to the region. It also broadly addresses the dynamic nature of fisheries. Further, it highlights areas where future development may result in conflict with commercial fisheries, ranging from sand and gravel mining, offshore energy, routine activities like scientific studies, ship-based seafloor mapping projects and the dredging of port channels.

Action items reference a range of maps related to commercial fishing found on the Northeast Ocean Data Portal, which depict the spatial footprint of fishing vessels operating in certain federally-managed fisheries and the geographic extent of certain federal fishery management areas. These data are intended to provide a regional perspective for agencies and project developers, giving insight into whether potential activities may impact fisheries. In the past, these data were not easily accessible to all agencies or ocean users. By increasing data accessibility, the plan will improve coordination among ocean managers and agencies and improve communication with fishermen much earlier than has happened in the past. In the end, this is meant to avoid and minimize impacts to fishermen and the habitats where they fish.

The Plan also identifies research priorities and data gaps that need to be filled to improve our understanding of commercial fisheries. Data gaps identified in the plan include: the need to monitor ocean chemistry changes such as ocean acidification; enhancing our understanding of biodiversity of marine species and the resilience of the ecosystem with changing conditions; and, understanding shifts in fish distribution and abundance and how that impacts commercial and recreational fisheries. Other data gaps include: the need to improve the characterization of commercial fishing activity for fisheries that do not use Vessel Monitoring Systems; better characterization of locally important fisheries like lobster; and, improved spatial data on where recreational and charter boating occurs.

What’s Next?

Now that both plans are finalized, the work will begin in the regions to put them into action. The Regional Planning Bodies will continue to meet with ocean users and the public to advance regional priorities.

These ocean plans are supported by a broad range of ocean users because of the extensive engagement throughout the development of these plans. They also have strong support from the congressional delegation, signaling the value decision-makers at all levels see in these plans.

Ocean Conservancy is excited about the finalization of the nation’s first regional ocean plans and will continue to work with a broad range of ocean users as future iterations of the plan are developed and data gaps are filled. Stay tuned for what’s next!

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