Life in the ocean is dynamic, delicate, and ever changing. Marine organisms chase prey, migrate with the seasons, and respond to the physical and chemical dimensions of a changing ocean. The dynamic interplay between these organisms and the marine environment makes them challenging to manage and protect.
Much of this difficulty arises from a mismatch of scale. State waters are often too small to encompass entire ecosystems, while federal waters encompass a wide range of ecosystems and are managed for a variety of purposes that may, at times, conflict.
Closer to the surface, the ocean is equally dynamic and complex. Activities such as commercial and recreational fishing, offshore energy and infrastructure development, maritime commerce, sand and gravel mining, naval training and operations, scientific research, and recreation all depend on the ocean. These and other human uses make the ocean an increasingly busy place. Without proper coordination and collaboration, conflicts between ocean uses often arise. Ensuring the sustainability and compatibility of ocean uses while maintaining ocean health requires jurisdictions to coordinate on scales that encompass marine ecosystems and the full range of human uses.
Regional ocean planning, a new approach to ocean management in the United States, may represent ocean governance at its most effective scale. Regions such as the Mid-Atlantic, New England, or the Pacific Northwest harbor unique marine ecosystems, economies, and governance needs. These and other ocean regions have diverse groups of ocean stakeholders with interests unique to their regions. By coordinating ocean uses and management for healthy ecosystems at a regional level, planners can account for, prioritize, and more effectively address those special needs and circumstances while ensuring that stakeholders are engaged in a transparent process.
Unlike countries and states, regions do not have their own elected leaders. For regional ocean planning to work, decision makers at various scales of government from across a region must come together voluntarily and engage the full spectrum of stakeholders to solve problems collaboratively.
Fortunately, substantial progress toward regional governance has already been made. As a result of collaboration between Federal agencies, states, tribes, and Regional Fishery Management Councils, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions completed the nation’s first regional ocean plans. These plans outline a series of collaborative actions and best practices to proactively foster compatibility among ocean uses and maintain ocean health. Both regions provided numerous opportunities for public input and feedback, giving the plans broad support from development, fishing, commerce, conservation, and tribal interests, among others.
The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regional ocean plans were finalized and released in 2016 and are now being implemented. On the other side of the country, the West Coast and Pacific Islands regions have begun the process of collaboratively developing their own ocean plans. All of these planning efforts hold immense potential for ocean users and marine ecosystems. With support from national, regional, and state leaders, this model of regional-scale coordination and collaboration will help to ensure a sustainable future for America’s oceans.
(Video Credit: Karen Meyer).
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.