As vast and open as the ocean seems, it can be a crowded place. A growing number of competing human uses—commercial fishing, maritime commerce, national security, recreation, mining, and telecommunications—require space in the ocean. In addition, a diverse range of species live in or around the ocean and may have space requirements that overlap with human uses.
A relatively new technology in the United States, offshore wind energy is now joining the competition for ocean space. Following the completion of the first U.S. offshore windfarm along the Rhode Island coast in 2016, the industry is poised for growth along the Eastern seaboard. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has issued offshore wind leases off the coast of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, among others.
As an emerging ocean activity in an increasingly crowded space, the rise of offshore wind energy has not been without conflict. Various industries and conservation groups have expressed concerns about the potential impacts of wind farms on their way of life, the economic bottom line, and the environment.
But it is possible to proactively avoid many of these potential conflicts by better understanding the locations of different human uses and marine life in advance and sharing that information early in the decision making process.
One example of proactive engagement has helped to foster dialogue between prospective wind energy developers and recreational fisherman off the coast of Virginia. Located on a lease held by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project (VOWTAP) is a research initiative to construct two test turbines 30 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach.
Through a series of GIS workshops, agencies engaged the fishing community in a mapping exercise to identify areas of high fishing intensity in and around the VOWTAP site. The workshop confirmed that areas nears the shore are subject to higher fishing pressure than the VOWTAP leasing area and helped pinpoint best practices for avoiding conflict with the fishing community once development begins.
The utility of proactive planning extends beyond offshore wind. Interactive online resources such as the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Ocean Data Portals, which contain dozens of ocean data layers including shipwreck density, shipping traffic, offshore military installations, critical marine habitats, and deep sea corals, allow users to create their own maps and identify potential use conflicts. Planners can also use other online portals, such as the national level Marine Cadastre or various state-level portals, to address a variety of ocean use conflicts and questions.
Online data portals are valuable tools for engaging government, the private sector, conservation groups, and the public in a common conversation about ocean planning. By identifying best practices and areas where conflicts may arise, ocean planning tools help to ensure that all ocean interests are represented as early in decision making processes as possible. This should save time and money in the long run for all manner of ocean proposals.
For people like Doug Simpson, a marine information specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard and a participant in the regional planning process in the Mid-Atlantic, the utility of ocean data portals is clear. “It’s easy for me to direct people to the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal, guide them through it, and open up certain overlays. It quickly gives them a picture of, ‘Hey, here’s where shipping is, here’s where new industry can be,’ and lets them draw the conclusions themselves. What does it mean for shipping? What does it mean for wind energy? So it’s a quick, easy-to-use tool, and I appreciate that it’s out there.”
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.